One of the greatest things about attending the Foodbuzz Festival was being able to network with bloggers, restaurateurs, and other folks in the food industry. Though I grew up behind the scenes of this unique world, it’s quite a different thing to experience these things firsthand as an adult. It was through one of these new connections that I was able to learn about an interesting event happening at Grange Restaurant in Sacramento this month: the “Duck-Off”.It sounded like such an interesting idea and the restaurant seemed to be a place I’d truly enjoy, so I jumped at the chance to have my very first meal at this celebrated local restaurant.
Grange is well-known around Sacramento and the Northern California area for their farm-to-table inspired menus created by Chef Michael Tuohy (you may remember him as our great benefactor of olive oil knowledge during the Olive Oil Tasting at the Foodbuzz Festival). Using all regional ingredients, Chef Michael creates dishes that are inspired by the food, the geography and the seasons, resulting in menus as distinctive as California and its people. Grange’s wine selection comes also entirely from some of California’s best regional wineries, making this the perfect type of restaurant to make its home in the state capital.
So how does a Duck Off figure in with this acclaimed restaurant? And what exactly IS a Duck Off anyway? Aside from being an amusingly inspired event name, it was a special showdown between Chef Michael Tuohy of Grange and Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook,to see who could come up with the best duck inspired menu. Local celebrity judges from The Sacramento Bee, Corti Brothers Market and the California Waterfowl Association were present to cast their votes for the best dishes. The winning meal was to be featured as a special 5-course, prix-fixe menu, with 10% of the proceeds going toward the California Waterfowl Foundation. Since I was unable to attend the actual showdown and judging (which would have been great to watch!), the wild duck menu was to be a complete surprise for me, though as a first-timer at Grange, the entire experience was to be new & exciting.
As my friend Rich & I approached the restaurant, I mentally kicked myself for not noticing that all that “inconvenient construction” I’d griped about last year was actually meant to help design Grange and its parent hotel, The Citizen. As we were to find out later, this was a very big project that ended up taking over part of the sidewalk on 9th & J in Downtown Sac. I think the city of Sacramento must be quite happy that they did, as Grange has proven to be one of Downtown’s prime dining spots, gaining great press and being voted as Best New Restaurant by Sacramento Magazine. We were greeted warmly and taken to one of the better tables in the restaurant, according to our hostess. Located on what was once the sidewalk, we had a great view of the original exterior of the building and all its historical, architectural beauty. After being introduced to our highly recommended server, Roger, we had a chance to look at the menu (well, I did; Rich was far more fascinated by his new Droid). So who won the duck-off? Chef Michael of Grange. But according to other reviews and his own account on his blog, Hank Shaw gave Chef Michael some very stiff competition. On the menu for the evening:
~ Duck Charcuterie Plate with Duck Prosciutto, Duck Rillette, Foie Gras torchon, duck sausage stuffed in the neck (sausage made by Hank Shaw).
~ Local Farm Lettuces with Warm Confit, Pickled French Prunes and Duck Fat Vinaigrette
~ House Made Tagliatelle with Duck Sugo
~ Duck Cassoulet with Rancho Gordo Beans, Confit, Sausage and Pork Belly
~ Pear Tart with Huckleberry Compote and Orange Zabaglione (crust made with duck fat)
Right now I’m a little jealous of myself as I read over this menu. The entire meal was of such exquisite quality that I felt almost guilty for having it (an obvious sign that I’ve been working in a Catholic environment for awhile, lol). Our first course was a lovely introduction to the different flavors of wild duck, our favorite actually being Hank’s duck sausage. It was perfectly salted and tender, with special flavor that only duck could lend and I thoroughly enjoyed Roger’s description of how this sausage is made. I loved the prosciutto on the crusty bread provided and the rillette was another delectable appetizer to nibble on. I found the foie gras to be a little greasy (which is natural for duck, as it’s a fatty bird), but it might have been because the portion was a lot larger than the rest of the featured samples; perhaps in a smaller portion it would have been a little easier to handle. This first course was paired with a lovely little white sparkler from Domaine Carneros of the Napa Valley. Our salad of local farm lettuces, confit, and pickled prunes was a delightful blend that was wonderfully complemented by the vinaigrette. Because the lettuces came directly from regional farms, their fresh crispness came through beautifully and the combination of the savory confit and tart, tangy prunes was truly amazing. A fruity rosé from Tablas Creek accompanied this lovely salad.
The House Made Tagliatelle with Duck Sugo was by far our favorite dish of the evening, quite an accomplishment considering we were only on our third course (N.B.: this was another one of Hank’s creations! He is an imminently talented cook, so major kudos to him). The sugo was rich and savory, its meatiness dulcified by the just the slightest touch of Meyer lemon rind, and the tagliatelle perfectly al dente, the noodles wide enough to handle plenty of the scrumptious sugo. Paired with this course was the Dolcetto from Pavi, also from the Napa Valley, which I felt truly enhanced the flavors of this dish. Our main course quickly followed once I was able to tear myself away from the sugo, and I fell in love with the presentation. The Duck Cassoulet was chock full of umami rich goodness like pork belly, more of the fabulous duck confit and Hank’s duck sausage, as well as a generous amount of perfectly cooked Rancho Gordo Beans. Paired with another dark red wine, this time a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, Sangiovese and Petite Syrah called B24 (B Cellous), I think I officially fell into the most pleasant food coma at that point; not the kind that makes you fall asleep because you’ve eaten entirely too much, but the kind of bliss one can only reach by having a truly amazing meal. But I had to snap out of it! Dessert was next.
Now, it’s not every day you see a fruit tart on a menu whose crust is made with duck fat. Upon first reading this Rich made a strange face and immediately dismissed it as “too weird for [me]” but once again, he had to eat his words (and dessert). Made with local orchard pears, a huckleberry compote and orange scented crème fraiche, this dessert was a mid autumn dream to me. And the crust? Slightly flaky and rich with nary a duck in sight. Our final wine pairing for the evening was an orange muscat from Essensia, one of the few muscats that I’ve tried which I have actually enjoyed (to me, most muscats taste like Triaminic).
Overall, this combined effort was a true success in the eyes of both judges and diners alike. I had the chance to briefly catch up with Chef Michael, and though we were seated next to Hank’s wife and colleagues, I was unable to thank and congratulate him for his amazing work. Though this was a special event that is not usually part of Grange’s regular menu (which I made sure to peek at before I dove into my duck rillette), I know I will definitely come back to this restaurant. From its beautiful fusion of classic, historic architecture and modern décor to its superior staff and executive chef, I find Grange to be an outstanding addition to Sacramento’s growing collection of fine restaurants. And after looking over past specials and events on Grange’s website, I feel like this is a place even Poor Girl can revisit in order to enjoy a day off from my own kitchen. Specials like Chef Michael’s Thanksgiving spread offer diners a delectable 3-course prix-fixe menu for just $39, a phenomenal price for a holiday meal. Poor Girl gives this experience at Grange 5 stars and cannot wait to come back for more.
(Grange Restaurant is located at 926 J Street in Downtown Sacramento)