Sometime around 1800, no one knows the exact date, a restaurant opened up on the quai across from the Notre Dame in Paris. Not much attention was paid to it for many years, and in 1860 a guide book mentioned it as being “a bit out of the way.” Around 1890 the owner, Mr. Frederic Delair, began serving duck made in an unusual way and with a large silver duck press. In 1912 the Terrail family bought the restaurant, and it was in that family for many years. Until 1996 the restaurant, by then called the Tour D’Argent, had three Michelin stars, but it has gone downhill since then and today it has only one star. But it still has one of the greatest wine cellars in the world, and many go there for dinner, mainly to visit the wine cellar. The restaurant is famous for pressed duck and has perhaps the first restaurant to ever serve chocolate in Europe.
During its period of fame, the restaurant raised its own ducks. Diners who ordered a duck dinner were inscribed in a special book which contains such names as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Marlene Dietrich, Charlie Chaplin—and Mervyn Hecht (in the 1960’s).
Pressed duck was originally a specialty of the city of Rouen, where the exotic recipe was created. A young, plump duck is asphyxiated to retain its blood and is then roasted. Its liver is ground and seasoned, and the legs and breast are removed. The rest of the duck in put into the duck press and the blood and juices from the carcass is thickened and flavored with the liver, butter, and cognac and then combined with the breast after which cooking is finished. The breast is sliced and served with the sauce, and then the legs are served. This spectacle was perfected at the Tour D’Argent, and has been the subject of many articles and reverences in books and articles.
When I first moved to Pacific Palisades in 1964, there were very few restaurants, but one was a Chinese restaurant named House of Lee. They served a variation of pressed duck, which was somehow pressed without the fancy press, and with a simpler sauce, but I loved it and ate it often.
What brought all of this to mind is the duck I had recently at Si Laa Thai restaurant in Hollywood. They serve the best duck I’ve had in Los Angeles. It’s not made with a press, but it is so well prepared that it is similar, except no great sauce. But the duck is dense with crisp skin and all the fat cooked out. It sells out almost every night so we always call and reserve the duck.
Once the House of Lee closed, and the space morphed into a sushi roll restaurant, I never found pressed duck again in Los Angeles. In looking in Google for pressed duck in Los Angeles, ten restaurants came up, but in checking the menus and reviews, the only one I think has a real duck press is Pasjoli in Santa Monica, where you have to order the dish in advance. There is a Chinese dish which is similar and a few restaurants are listed with this dish, but it’s not the spectacle like at the Tour D’Argent.
I read recently on the internet that the pressed duck is no longer on the menu: “the world’s famous duck from the Tour D’Argent is now retired after being served 1.150.309 ducks since 1890”—sorry I lost the reference and can’t find it now, which makes me think it might not be true. If it is, you’ve lost your chance.
Ten years ago, I wrote about this in the Santa Monica Daily Press. At that time I lamented over the end of the era of exclusive restaurants. But now I think that era has come back, and there are several exclusive restaurants in Los Angeles, and perhaps more are coming. The fact that even one restaurant has a real duck press is a good sign.
(Merv Hecht, like many Harvard Law School graduates, went into the wine business after law. In 1988, he began writing restaurant reviews and books. His latest book is “The Instant Wine Connoisseur” and it is available on Amazon. Or you might like his attempt at humor in “Great Cases I Lost.” He currently works for several companies that source and distribute food and beverages, including wines, internationally. Please send your comments to: email@example.com.)