It was long after midnight. I had eaten my fill and wanted to go home. The servers wanted to go home. The chefs wanted to go home. The valet, if he hadn’t already split, had probably fallen asleep on West Fulton Market.
Meanwhile, the unbearable throb of action at Duck Duck Goat had subsided to an unbearable near silence, and my party—heavy lidded and all talked out—sat in the empty dining room waiting for a waffle we no longer wanted. You see, the waffle iron, imported straight from China, had gone kablooey. Yet the solicitous manager persevered even after we said, “Don’t worry about it, we’re ready for the check,” at which point we endured 15 more minutes of We’re so sorry you’ve waited so long but it’s totally worth it and we promise you’re really really going to love this waffle.
Jeez, people. Chill. It’s just a waffle.
Call it obsessive eagerness, or self-indulgence, or hospitality gone mental. Duck Duck Goat, Stephanie Izard’s homage to the cuisines of Sichuan and stateside Chinatowns, wants to win you over so badly it isn’t above holding you hostage with sugary promises. And it delivers. I adored the waffle, an egg-yolky Hong Kong–style confection topped with sweet potato ice cream, peanut brittle, and chili-spiced strawberries.
But as with Izard’s previous ruminations on ruminants—the ever-packed Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner—everyone wants a piece of Duck Duck Goat. If any times are left, you’ll most likely be stuck with the dreaded 4:30 or 10:15 slot. If you want a shot at that Peking duck everyone’s talking about, you’d better hope for 4:30, because I didn’t see a whole lot of quacking going on after 10. My attempt to to reserve a duck along with my table was met with an arm more rigid than the guy’s on the Heisman Trophy. Apparently that’s where the hospitality ends.
Per the website of the restaurant’s superstar design firm, AvroKO (which also did the Boka Restaurant Group’s Momotaro and Swift & Sons), the riotous 5,500-square-foot eatery is meant to evoke the “eclectic irreverence and curious chaos found in most American Chinatown communities.” That’s a fancy way of saying that every hoary Chinese restaurant cliché makes an appearance in the five-room space: tasseled lanterns, crimson curtains, foreboding dragon door knockers, hanging Peking ducks, vivid colors and garish patterns and lazy Susans. What’s tacky in Chinatown is the height of fashion in the West Loop.
Following a long trip to the Far East with her husband, Gary Valentine, Izard spent a year teaching herself how to prepare Chinese food. Her ability to tackle a steep learning curve is impressive. The giant, frisky menu—a wide net of dim sum, soups, hand-pulled noodles, fried rice dishes, and larger entrées—hedges against criticism by self-identifying as “reasonably authentic.” “We have had some Chinese guests who said they would still go to Chinatown when they want truly authentic but loved our take on it,” says Izard, who opened the restaurant while seven months pregnant and biologically hostile toward many of the tastes she was fine-tuning. “Mostly, though, I just wanted a restaurant that was as fun as the flavor of China.”
The ironic distance gives Duck Duck Goat’s open kitchen free rein to play with the classics. A scorching, creamy crab rangoon comes with grilled pineapple sweet-and-sour sauce; crisp scallion pancakes get topped with a pickled coleslaw. By the time you dig into the Forbidden Goat—a spectacularly rich bowl of black rice with neon-pink pickled quail eggs, roasted goat, and goat liver—you’ve given up caring whether it’s authentic.
The staff brings out orders as they’re ready, in hopes of creating a family-style feast. “We want your table to be overflowing with dishes,” our pleasant young waitress gushed. This sounds good in theory, especially if you enjoy chopstick jousting with your friends over mu shu pork and short-rib-and-bone-marrow pot stickers. But table space is tight, and soon the Beef Slap Noodles on your sharing plate overflow into the cold octopus-peanut salad to create the kind of gloppy Sichuan shitstorm you went to Duck Duck Goat precisely to avoid.
The familiar stuff may get much of the attention: the delicate xiao long bao (soup dumplings filled with pork and crab), say, or the bland char siu bao (steamed buns with barbecue pork). But the more ambitious dishes show why Izard bothered to take on Chinese cuisine at all. Her kitchen debones a whole flaky red snapper, leaving the head and tail on, and stuffs it with chilies and aromatics to create addictive pockets of heat. Every bite of the silky mapo tofu with crumbly pork nubs and tongue-annihilating chili-garlic sauce hurts so good. And the centerpiece of Cheong Fun XO, a sausage and rice noodle dish with sautéed shrimp in XO broth, is little hunks of cuttlefish, one of the great oddballs of the sea, charred to smoky-chewy perfection.
Through some miracle on one visit, my party landed the last remaining Peking duck, and we saw God. (That is, if the Almighty were a waterfowl.) At Duck Duck Goat, it’s a crisp-skinned whole bird, golden, greaseless, sliced for easy eating, and harboring a generous layer of fat beneath the skin. I experimented with each ingredient on the plate of accompaniments (pickled ramps and cucumbers, sugar, salt, pineapple and hoisin sauces), adding various combinations to the thin mu shu wrappers to tweak the duck’s flavor. No matter the formula, pure dynamite. I’ve never had a Peking duck this close to flawless at Sun Wah, MingHin, or Phoenix.
Pastry chef Nate Meads puts to rest the tired lament that Asian desserts can’t go beyond a certain low ceiling. His creations include an ingenious almond “tofu”—almonds infused into a cream that’s been set with gelatin, edged with candied almonds, and drizzled with a black vinegar sauce. My favorite, an unsightly concoction involving rhubarb shaved ice, blueberry sorbet, crunchy corn cereal, and caramelized condensed milk, looked like a mistake but tasted like a masterpiece. And rather than send out fortune cookies, Duck Duck Goat opts for homemade almond cookies and little buttons with whimsically random messages (“You will make a new animal friend. Make sure you feed him!”).
Amid the chaos, half the nighttime population of the Fulton Market district packs into the central bar, strung with Christmas lights. Most of the revelers hoist beers, chosen by Valentine, or down cocktails with goofy names like Table Tennis, and everyone’s having a grand old time. The overworked bartenders seem every bit as giddy as their patrons.
Whenever people talk about Izard’s restaurants, the word “fun” inevitably pops up. At Duck Duck Goat, it all starts with playful, smart food and goes from there, ultimately rendering questions of authenticity moot. Whether you’re stuck with the early-bird reservation, the yawning late-night stretch, or the swarming interval in between, Izard’s latest offering sells pure amusement. And, as usual, everyone is buying.