Our new favorite place-French/Vietnamese-has three advantages: the food is unbelievable; it’s around the corner; it’s a relatively easy reservation. New Yorkers undoubtedly will be most surprised by number three. To get a table at a really good restaurant is like getting your kid into nursery school, i.e. an exercise somewhere between hope and torture. Therefore I will divulge neither the name nor the location.
However, I can boil down a theme to their food: balance, a characteristic of Vietnamese cuisine, done exceptionally well here. The green papaya salad is tossed lightly in a dressing of, among other items, salty fish sauce and sweet mirin, a sauce which reappears here and there on the menu, drizzled over addictive fried Brussels sprouts, and a plate of multi-colored radishes. Nothing is too sweet or too salty; the kitchen touches most dishes with a kiss of both.
On the other side of the culinary universe is the chef who prefers sugary sauces, as in sticky syrup that in one fell drop transforms a duck breast into a stack of pancakes. Aside from being too sweet and inappropriate for a savory dish, the product is one-note, missing a fraction of the complexity integral to, say, the aforementioned Vietnamese fare.
Duck, however, is great with some kind of sugar, to wit, Peking duck and hoisin sauce, a combo up there with peanut butter and jelly or the New York City subway and grime. For the sweet element, rather than an over-reduced, cloyingly sweet sauce, we used a simple red wine-poached pear.
Possibly because it’s not too sweet, a pear is the stepbrother of the apple. And yet, pears have a subtle sweetness perfect for a savory plate. You could poach it in water to equally good result, but the red wine gives you a thoroughly crimson plate of food. For those who prefer a bit of extra sugar, you could reduce the poaching liquid, but just use a few drops; any more and you may as well skip dinner and go on to dessert.
Duck Breast and Red Wine Poached Pear
2 duck breasts
2 pears, peeled, halved, cored
2 cups red wine
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 350.
- Combine the wine, water, and sugar, bring to a simmer, add pears, cover with a round of parchment paper that just fits the pot (this ensures the pears remain submerged) and cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep until cool. (If you want a sauce: Place pears and 1 cup of the poaching liquid in a bowl. Reserve. Boil down the remaining poaching liquid to a syrup.)
- Score skin of duck breasts in a shallow crosshatch pattern. Season with salt and pepper.
- Heat a medium pan over medium heat. Add the breasts skin down and let the fat render, periodically pouring it off (reserve for another use) until deeply golden and crisp. Flip skin side up, place in oven until done, a few minutes. (Make sure not to overcook! Well-done duck is the stale bread of the fowl world.)
- To serve, let the duck rest on a plate for 10 minutes. Reheat the pears in the reserved poaching liquid, reheat the sauce and whisk in butter. Season sauce. Slice duck thinly, divide pear halves and few drops of sauce on each plate.