Chefs are reviving the old French practice of pressing ducks in vises

The flat duck's encore

Pressed duck being served at Paris's La Tour D'Argent (Courtesy of La Tour D'Argent)

Pressed duck being served at Paris’s La Tour D’Argent (Courtesy of La Tour D’Argent)

Consider the following dining room show, witnessed in January at Toronto’s Edulis restaurant. First, a deliberately under-roasted duck is presented to the table. Then the breasts were carved from the crown. The remaining, bloody carcass is cut into pieces, and transferred to the drum of a cylindrical screw press, right there on a tableside trolley. Then the handle of the press is turned until every last drop of blood and marrow is squeezed from the bird and runs from the spout to a copper pan. The juices are then married with stock, brandy and butter to produce sauce au sang.French-comicSIDE

When the blood sauce is reunited with its rare breast—sliced thinly into aiguillettes—the results are magnificent. The bird is tender and gamey from age; the sauce is complex and quite unfashionably rich. Put another way, it tastes strongly of the past.

Most date the recipe to the mid-19th century, when a chef of the surname Méchenet opened a bistro in a mothballed Chinese laundry, and came up with the recipe with a view to imaginatively repurposing its immovable steam-powered roller press. (Actually he just adapted a traditional French meat press to be used exclusively for the big, fat ducks of his native Rouen.)

Around 1890, restaurateur Frédéric Delair made the dish a classic at his Paris restaurant La Tour d’Argent—in some large part because he understood that fine dining revels in pomp and circumstance. He commissioned a pair of grand duck presses plated in pure sliver. He also had the inspired idea of sequentially numbering each duck he squashed. Because of Delair, we know that future King Edward VII tucked into duck No. 328 at La Tour d’Argent, back when he was merely the Prince of Wales. And that his niece Elizabeth later sampled duck No. 185,387.

In 2003 La Tour d’Argent put the squeeze on its millionth duck—but in the rest of the world the recipe had long since fallen out of favour. The 21 Club in Manhattan sold its duck press to a customer in the 1930s. The long-retired press at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton is on display in the lobby bar. One reason for this is that the dish is too rich and heavy for modern tastes. Another is that it calls for duck killed in the Rouen style—wherein birds are not bled, but suffocated so that their blood lingers in their tissue. You can try to do this nicely—say, by sneaking up on the ducks in the middle of the night, whisking their little goose-down pillows from beneath their sleeping heads and pressing them down on their beaks before they even know what hit them—but it’s quite illegal.

But then came an unexpected revival. In 2008 Daniel Boulud’s great kitchen team found a way to make the dish at his eponymous Manhattan restaurant with a legally bled duck marinated in port and red currant jelly, and it promptly topped GQ’s list of best dishes of the year. Chef Michael Caballo launched his version at Edulis last year; let history note that mine was flat duck No. 5.