At Otto’s, it all begins with a sugar cube.
Otto, whose accent is so thick you’d never have guessed he’d spent the last 10 years cooking exquisite French food in restaurants all over London, begins the hour-long sauce preparation by melting a brown sugar cube over an alcohol burner at the side of our table. In the polished sheen of the eponymous Maitre d’-cum-Chef’s sauté pan, it is immediately obvious that everyone at the table was transfixed.
It’s a rare thing – in a landscape where mainstream restaurants are continuously fixated on breaking new ground – to find a restaurant where traditional French cuisine is treated with such reverence. Otto’s is known, first and foremost, for its Canard de Rouen a la Presse. The history of this dish is fascinating, stretching back to the 19th Century. Originating in Rouen, Pressed Duck was created by restaurateur M. Mechenet, but owes much of its success to the Duke of Chartres, who raved about it to his wealthy Parisian friends. The world-famous restaurant at La Tour d’Argent is where the dish ended up making its name, and instituted the practice of numbering each of the Pressed Ducks that were served.
Otto’s isn’t the only place in the world that serves this dish. In fact, it’s not even the only place in London that serves it. From time to time, you will find it on the menu at one of the capital’s various high-end French restaurants. One of the things that makes Otto’s stand out, though, is that, under whatever guise the dish appears, very few places can mimic the service and theatre at Otto's.
Fifteen minutes have passed, and Otto returns to the burner, displaying the contents of the pan – a dark, rich caramel–- before adding red wine (a half bottle), Port (a good slug), and Madeira. “This,” he continues, “I will leave to reduce until it is almost disparu.”
After twenty minutes, Otto returns again, emerging from the kitchen with a small saucepan of rich, dark stock. “This is the stock of the duck, made from yesterday’s bones.” He insists on waving the pan under each diner’s nose. The aroma is heady, more akin to beef than duck or game stock. It is added to the pan of reduced booze, accompanied by a warning of another twenty minute wait.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that restaurant dishes were plated in the kitchen and carried whole to the diner. This revolution, where ultimately the chef has more control of the construction and look of the finished dish, began the gradual demise of the great art of table service. As labour costs rose, it made economical sense for the savvy restaurateur to have waitstaff in addition to kitchen runners delivering food to tables.
The great man returns. Having just prepared a beautiful steak tartare at an adjacent table to the exacting specification of the portly man who is undoubtedly a regular, Otto seems unflappable in the face of a full Thursday dinner service. The amuse bouche for the evening is delivered – the liver of the very duck being otherwise prepared, chopped finely with a little vinegar, shallot and parsley, served on a large crouton with a small glass of Madeira. Nothing can quite describe that first mouthful – metallic-tasting liver fat balanced expertly with vinegar and sharp, sweet shallots.
Otto is like a man possessed. In chatting with him, it becomes clear how much he cares about the preservation of this tradition. He came to London from working front-of-house at La Tour d’Argent, where he first saw the numbered ducks served by the hundred. In his own restaurant, he has managed to preserve a connection to the supplier of these fine, fatty birds at La Tour d’Argent, a supply which is otherwise exclusive to the hotel. As a result, Otto only manages to secure 12 ducks a week – fewer than 140 a year are served in London, despite much greater demand.
And now, the duck arrives from the kitchen. The chef, accompanied by the ever watchful Otto, explains how it is roasted very rare (it only goes into the oven when diners arrive at the restaurant). Nevertheless, it is brought reverently to the table, faintly smoking, and is summarily flamed in brandy at the table. Otto expertly removes each of the breasts, placing them to one side. The skin is then deftly rolled away, and along with the rest of the bird, is whisked away to the kitchen.
There is something to be said for a meal like this one. In Britain, there isn’t really a tapas or mezze equivalent, meaning that meals tend to come in three large waves: starter, main course, dessert. Conversation is similarly divided, with the flow entirely interrupted by the arrival of each course. At Otto’s, the disjointed nature of the meal’s preparation, coupled with the discrete, yet attentive service, allow for a very relaxed, entirely satisfactory dining experience.
Otto returns, this time accompanied by his son (it is, unsurprisingly, a family affair, this duck pressing) with a silver canister, about the size of a coffee tin. “The legs have now been removed, and this is the carcass of the duck,” he flourishes the canister into even the most squeamish diners’ faces, tapping the side of the dulled silver tin, “and this is the canister for the press.” Otto whisks away the heavy velvet cloth, a sort of cross between vintage wine press and instrument of unthinkable medieval torture.
Episodic as this meal is, it’s also Odyssean. Before the duck is even served, you will have been in the restaurant for over an hour. This is something also entirely endearing about Otto’s – there is no rush. Not once is there the indication that the table will be turned over and that another guest may need your space. This is a refreshing change of pace from other restaurants in London, the trend for which has recently developed a distinctly “high turnover” feel, regardless of where you go.
The canister is loaded into the press. A burly, previously unseen waiter (another of Otto’s progeny perhaps) appears to operate the machinery. “Each duck requires two pressings,” explains the man. “The first will get the juices from the flesh, and the blood from the duck. The second will remove the marrow from the bones.” The process is strangely silent as meaty juices flow from a small spout in the side of the press.
The blood and marrow are added to the sauce, now bubbling gently on the alcohol burner. The rest of the chopped liver is added, and whisked through. Cognac is added and burned off before the sauce is finished with butter. The breasts reappear, and are sliced very thin, each sliver laid lovingly at the bottom of a deep bowl. The plates are sauced en place in front of the diner. Then come the side dishes.
The pommes soufflé are placed in a basket alongside some well-cooked buttered green beans. At this stage, you’ve been snacking (the liver) and drinking (the wine, oh so much wine, and champagne!) for over an hour, and the duck is just perfect for hitting the spot. The meat is subtly gamey and melts in the mouth. And that sauce! The perfect combination of deep, savoury duck bones and sweet boozy reduction with a tang of iron from the melted liver. Poured generously around the duck, and mopped up by salty, crispy pommes, this is the ultimate comfort food.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, something magical is happening with those duck legs. The chef has grilled them with a breadcrumb crust and placed them to one side. Remember the skin removed from the breasts earlier? This has been finely sliced and fried with garlic, bacon and croutons, ready to be served alongside the salad of the legs. This is waiting for the unsuspecting diner who, blissfully, has forgotten that there’s yet another course.
This is dinner of great value – the Canard a la Presse comes in at £120 for two people, which is served in two courses, plus the amuse bouche and accompaniments. Given the level of input from Otto and his team, this seems incredibly cheap. The wine list has a good range, from fruity, full-bodied Merlots for around £20, right up to famous-named vintage bottles running into three figures.
Otto’s isn’t the best restaurant in London, but is one of the most extraordinary dining experiences you could ever hope to experience. This is a deeply personal restaurant in a city of anonymous diners and back-of-house restaurateurs. This is a place, as the ’80s sitcom goes, where everybody knows your name, and where you’re very unlikely to forget theirs.