Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Otto's: old-school charm

Okay, I'll pin my colours to the mast straightaway. I absolutely love Otto's. If you're interested in food, drink and especially cooking there's a great deal to love here. Even before we entered the restaurant on a quiet stretch of Gray's Inn Road, the eye-catchingly glamorous empty bottles in the window got the juices flowing. Once inside, there was a palpable buzz from diners all delighted to be there, witnessing the spectacle of classic, old-school restaurant service, expertly led from the front of house by Otto Albert Tepassé who has 43 years' experience gleaned in starry dining rooms such as La Tour d'Argent, Plaza Athenée and Maxim's in Paris. His young chef, Eric Jolibois, has manned the stoves at the Hotel Bristol, Carré des Feuillants and Taillevent in Paris and Maison Troigros in Roanne.

We'd had to book a couple of months in advance to have the dish for which Otto's is most known: canard à la presse (i.e. pressed duck) as the duck press can only be used a couple of times per sitting and the ducks are ordered in advance from Burgaud in Challans, the same supplier as La Tour d'Argent. I first came across this fabled dish reading Brideshead Revisited (see here) and as soon as I heard that a London restaurant was serving it, I just had to go, willing husband in tow. We were greeted warmly by Otto and immediately offered glasses of Ayala Champagne while we settled ourselves in for a memorable evening.

Another table were also having pressed duck which gave us the chance to observe the spectacle before it was our turn. In the meantime we ordered a couple of starters (to be honest, unnecessary given what was to follow, but they helped fill the time). I had smoked salmon, hand-carved at the table (£12.50) and N had snail and creamed garlic ravioli with parsley sauce (£9.50). These were washed down by some cleansing Cuvée des Evêques Pinot Blanc by Hugel (£24). It also gave us the chance to deliberate over which red to have with the duck. As you might expect, the wine list is strong on Burgundy and not greedily priced. We opted for Beaune Premier Cru les Siziers 2005 de Montille (£65).

As we ate our starters, we were shown (introduced to?) our duck – large, plump and complete with feathered head. This is not for the squeamish. It is then taken away to be roasted before reappearing at the table, cooked, for flambéing, carving and, ultimately, pressing. In the meantime the sauce base is made by firstly melting a brown sugar cube and allowing it to caramelise which is then flambéed with Cognac. Port and red Burgundy follow and are reduced to a syrupy consistency, then stock from a previous duck (enriched with veal bone) is added. After a lot of whisking over heat (a burner in an large ice bucket) the chopped liver from our duck is stirred in, plus some Sercial Madeira. After a lot more reducing, the sauce is strained twice.

Shortly afterwards we are served an appetiser of duck liver crostini with a little cup of Malvasia Madeira: a great little taste of what was to come. Rich and complex.

Our duck, now roasted, is brought back to the table and is then doused in Cognac, flambéed and carved. The legs are removed and returned to the kitchen and the breasts removed from the carcass and set aside to keep warm. The skin is gently eased away from the breast meat with a spoon. Now for the main event. The carcass is put inside the silver-plated duck press (made by Christofle in the early 1900s) to be crushed, extracting all the tasty duck gunk which is then whisked into the sauce for pouring over the breast meat. The result is dark, glossy and deeply flavoured, with layer upon layer of complexity and amazing with the gamey meat.

Pommes soufflés – something we'd never seen before – came as an accompaniment. These little air-filled potato pillows are made from finely sliced (2mm) potatoes (in this case the very dry Agria variety) deep fried three times, each time for 20 minutes, until they pop and expand. Imagine the fanciest game chips turned into crisp little bubbles. Apparently, many don't behave properly and are discarded. No wonder you don't encounter them much.

We were getting very full by this point, but two more duck dishes followed – there was a wonderfully rich creation made from the leg meat and then a bowl of tasty crunchiness like duck scratchings made from the skin. There was so much to eat.

However, we managed a palate cleansing dessert – pineapple, coconut cream and lychee sorbet with some dainty little madeleines. Otto joined us with a rather special bottle of Mosel Riesling, Graacher Himmelreich Auslese 2000 from J J Prum which rounded off the evening impeccably.

Of course, something this laborious and luxurious doesn't come cheap, but £120 for the canard à la presse for two (plus drinks, although several of ours were included) seemed perfectly reasonable for a special evening out. We'll certainly be going back – there are more classic culinary adventures we look forward to sharing with Otto before he calls it a night.

182 Gray's Inn Road
Tel 020 7713 0107

Square Meal

Otto's on Urbanspoon

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