Can fine dining be fun?
Duck Duck Goose, a French brasserie that opened in Fells Point earlier this summer, makes a pretty good case that it’s possible. Though the menu is elegant and the kitchen, helmed by owner and executive chef Ashish Alfred, obviously takes food seriously, the Duck Duck Goose vibe is more festive than reverential–and that is a good thing.
Our experience at DDG wasn’t perfect: We had a few issues with both the service and the food. But the restaurant’s charms far outweighed its problems.
Aesthetically, Duck Duck Goose knows what it’s doing. The front room has over-scaled tropical floral patterns on the walls and, in a small side dining room, clean white walls bathed in natural light. The focus on aesthetics extends to the menu: every dish was a pleasure to view.
The first treat (both visual and otherwise) arrived even before we’d ordered cocktails: a sleek white dish of bread served with a smear of beet and goat cheese spread that was a gorgeous pink. The spread tasted as good as it looked–the combination of tangy cheese and earthy beet was a good one.
That shocking pink spread set the bar high for the rest of the meal. For the most part, we were impressed.
Next up was another visual showstopper: smoked scallop ceviche from the “smalls” section of the menu. The scallops, chopped into chunks and served with sliced almonds, chopped chiles and microgreens, were scooped into a large shell and brought to the table under a smoke-filled dome.
The unveiling of the ceviche was dramatic, as the smoke spiraled away from the shell. The dish itself was beautifully seasoned and a masterful combination of flavor and texture.
A plate of lamb Bolognese, from the “shares” menu, looked humble, especially next to the visual effects of the scallops, but wowed us with its flavor. Spaghettini, lightly sauced with heirloom tomatoes and ground lamb, was surprisingly herbaceous and more summery than a plate of pasta with meat usually tastes.
Overall, Duck Duck Goose is more reasonably priced than you might expect, given its French pedigree and the creativity of the menu. Yes, there’s a $95 cote de boeuf for two, but that’s an outlier. At just $14, the bone marrow appetizer felt like a steal.
The bone in question was big and chunky, filled with jellied marrow to spread on toasted bread. The marrow was everything we hoped it would be–rich and savory–and that alone would’ve been well worth the price.
Under the bone, though, there was a surprise: saucy beef ragout, and enough of it to nearly make a meal. Scooped onto the bread, it boosted the marrow’s meaty undertones. The dish also included a ramekin filled with chunky blueberry jam, which added a sweet counterpoint to the rest of the ingredients.
We sampled two main courses, tournedos of beef with foie gras and halibut in puff pastry, with somewhat mixed results.
The filet and foie gras, garnished with red wine jus and served with potatoes and broccoli puree, was a rousing success. The meat was cooked just to medium rare, the foie gras was carefully seared and the broccoli puree added a splash of color and acid (along with a slight nod to cardiovascular health). Nothing on the plate caught us by surprise, but when you’re slicing through tender beef and foie gras, unexpected additions aren’t necessary.
However, the halibut en croute was overcooked, which was a shame. Did it sit too long, we wondered? Maybe. Was the pastry so thick that it needed more time than the fish could bear? That was another possibility. In the end, it didn’t matter why the fish was several degrees past flaky; it just was.
Despite its mushy texture, the dish had some strong points. Served with asparagus and minty pea puree–both of which felt integral to the dish as a whole–and accessorized with a bright flower, the entrée was a conceptual masterpiece, even if its execution was lacking.
We dined at DDG on a Thursday, which meant that bottles of rosé were half-priced; the list was brief but smart, and the southern French bottle we chose complemented all our courses.
Before wine, though, we had a cocktail. I laughed a little when I ordered The Golden Goose, knowing that the Citron vodka, lemon and white cranberry juice drink was topped with not only champagne, but also with a sprinkle of 24 karat gold flakes. Reading the menu, the flakes sounded silly and overly extravagant. But when the drink arrived at the table, I couldn’t help myself: I was charmed.
The drink itself was excellent, an ideal balance of tart and sweet. Instead of looking tacky and flashy, the gold flakes provided just a little sparkle. Were they absolutely necessary? No. But they did make me smile.
An after-dinner drink–house-infused banana Jameson–was also a hit. Before it arrived, we wondered if it might be blended, like a smoothie. Fortunately, it wasn’t. It retained the texture of a spirit, but the banana brought out the sweetness of the whiskey, so it satisfied the need for something nectarous.
In addition to the Jameson, we tried the restaurant’s chocolate mousse, which was appropriately decadent. It wasn’t wild or experimental, but chocolate mousse is a classic for a reason; it doesn’t require any updates to be a crowd-pleaser.
With the exception of the overcooked fish, the food at Duck Duck Goose was impressive. Every single dish (including the halibut) was seasoned properly, the flavors were enticing and the presentations were spectacular. On the merits of the food alone, Duck Duck Goose deserves every bit of praise it receives.
Of course, restaurants don’t thrive on food alone, and some other aspects of our dining experience needed tweaking. To their credit, the Duck Duck Goose staff made adjustments on the fly, so some of the issues we experienced when we first arrived were resolved by the middle of the meal.
The first problem was the noise level. Our reservation was for 6:45 p.m., as post-work happy hour drifts into dinner service. For the first 30 minutes of our dinner, we had to shout to hear each other over the music (and over the shouts of other tables, who were also struggling to chat). Half an hour into our meal, the volume level decreased, and the meal became much more pleasant.
Like the noise level, the service started out rough but improved over the course of our meal.
Casually dressed in their own clothes, the wait staff is friendly and approachable. They might be too casual, though. Something I enjoy about fine dining is having an expert server guide me through a meal: someone who can intelligently discuss the menu, make suggestions and set the tone and pace for the evening.
Our waitress was very sweet, and with more training, she likely could be that sort of guide. But that wasn’t our experience.
Initially, she seemed overtaxed. She was running around–obviously busy–and we sat for longer than we should have before someone took our drink order. By the end of the meal, she was more available and a little more hands-on. But even then, it felt like she was hanging back, reacting to us rather than taking the proactive approach we would’ve welcomed.
That wasn’t the only issue we had with the service. The caliber of food at Duck Duck Goose deserves some fanfare; this isn’t a casual burger joint. When presenting the menus, servers should offer a brief introduction, at a minimum. When dishes arrive, they should be delivered with a quick explanation, not plopped down unceremoniously, as they were.
At another restaurant, the combination of hectic service and overcooked halibut might spell doom. But by the time we paid the bill, we were already dreaming up reasons to come back for another visit. Was it the space? The vibe? That incredible smoked scallop starter? Probably a combination of all of those things, and something more.
Duck Duck Goose, like all the best French places, simply seems to have that certain je ne sais quoi.
Duck Duck Goose. 814 S. Broadway, Baltimore, (443) 869-2129, ddgbaltimore.com
Final Grade: B+
Bottom Line: With a menu that is exciting both aesthetically and in terms of flavor, and a space that’s welcoming, Duck Duck Goose makes fine dining a lot of fun. Our experience had a few glitches, but the restaurant’s charms outweigh its problems by a long shot. I can’t wait to go back.
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