Whilst the pandemic may have thwarted our international travel plans, now is the perfect time to plan for a new culinary adventure!
Here, I take you to a French institution that is certainly deserving of your gastronomic bucket list.
Founded in 1582, La Tour d’Argent boasts one of the best views of Paris, overlooking the Seine and the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, which still bears its scars from the terrible blaze that nearly led to its destruction.
The view is best from my table – the apex of the dining space – and even better with a glass of champagne in hand! Though, I am informed, Grace Kelly once sat at the table positioned next to mine when she dined here. Yes, this place is entrenched in history.
The wait staff already know my purpose: le canard à la presse or, as it is fondly called here, ‘Duckling Frédéric Declair.
Under the helm of the headwaiter-turned-owner of La Tour d’Argent in the middle of the 19th Century, Frédéric Declair, table service took on a new dimension. Frédéric introduced the carving of a duck on the end of a fork without allowing it to touch the platter. He codified the recipe of the ‘pressed duck’, or ‘duckling Frédéric Declair’ and was so certain of the durability of his endeavour that in 1890 decided to give each duck served a number.
Remarkably, too, the fork made its first appearance in France at La Tour d’Argent – an innovative invention to prevent gentlemen from staining the immaculate fashionable ruff worn around the neck. Henry IV, a regular diner of the restaurant, inaugurated this piece of cutlery over a much talked about dinner and, from that evening on, La Tour d’Argent could not be ignored.
An iconic crystal Baccarat duck (main picture), exclusively created for La Tour d’Argent in 1986, keeps me company as I gaze across Paris, daydreaming, and sipping from my Tour d’Argent branded metal goblet.
I spy the famous sterling silver press (above), ready for action, out of the corner of my eye, as the wait staff present to me “my duck” and hand to me a certificate bearing the number of the duck (No.1169434). The certificate – a picture of a duck hugging La Tour d’Argent – is seriously cute, too (below).
Now, to the slightly more barbaric details of this renowned dish.
The duck is disrobed and its carcass is placed in the press and crushed until the juice from its organs runs into the dish. Operating the press appears to be especially manual from where I’m sitting and I’m pleased to simply enjoy the fruits of the wait staff’s labour (and the amuses bouches)!
The canard à la presse comes in two courses.
For the first service: roasted fillet with blood sauce and red berries chutney from Tarja Terrail’s garden (the restaurant is the Terrail family business, since 1911).
For the second service: braised leg with confit turnip, pomegranate jus and grated duck foie gras.
The presentation of both courses is minimalist and precise. Whilst I’m afraid to say the first course ultimately fell victim to repetition – delicious and exciting at first but then too much of the same thing, forkful after forkful – the second course was an interesting and enjoyable melange of flavours and textures, and perfectly portioned.
And just as realisation sets in, that my experience will soon draw to a close, a waitress steers her cheese trolley towards me and politely queries whether I might be tempted with some cheese and house-made port. I have a confession: I have never said no to a cheese trolley. So, after a comprehensive dialogue surrounding every divine specimen on the trolley, I settled on five (yes, five!) cheese varietals. Every single one of them was delicious, and the house-made port proved to be the perfect accompaniment.
As some delicate and colourful sweets appear at my table – macarons, coated strawberries and chocolate treats – which quickly disappear from sight, I count my lucky stars for this signature dish experience at a French gastronomic institution, and on a perfect Parisian day when that sensational skyline view of Paris is at its best!
Dominique Mayo is a Senior Associate at Clyde & Co.