We’re big fans of bucket lists — especially when it comes to food. Not only is it a delicious way to spend your time, it’s also a good tactic to getting to know your city and the people that fortify it. For us, our Denver list is long. From pho and dumplings on Federal to fried chicken on Colfax and of course the many, many new restaurants — it’s always evolving (in fact we’re hard at work on our 2018 list — you can read the 2017 one here). But while we are calculating the rest of our choices, we have one we need to tell you about now.
Departure, Cherry Creek’s sleek pan-Asian restaurant, has brought back its Peking duck special. Only available during the month of December, the menu item debuted in Denver back in 2016 and in 2010 at Departure’s original Portland location. The special returned to the Mile High because of popular demand — more than 200 people placed orders in less than 30 days. In typical restaurant fare, maybe that’s not as many hamburgers or basket of fries you’d sell, but for the ducks it’s a much more arduous process than just dunking it in a deep fryer (although they do that, too).
First, the Maple Leaf ducks are rubbed with a special seven spice, sugar and salt mix then cured for 24 hours. The next day, they take the duck and blanch it in boiling water with honey and Shaoxing, a rice wine, to render the skin. Afterwards, they are dried in a cooler for a minimum of three days. According to executive chef Khamla Vongsakoun the longer you dry it, the crispier the skin gets. After the three days, the duck goes through a series of oven visits at different temperatures, during which it is glazed with honey and Tamari soy sauce. Last but not least, right before the duck hits the table they drop it in a deep fryer for one and a half minutes. The result is a beautiful amber bird with skin so crispy it looks like it could shatter. According to chef Vongsakoun, this isn’t that much different than traditional Peking duck preparation. But if the meal stopped there we’d probably just tell you to head to Federal and grab a much less expensive rendition. But fortunately, Departure is offering a lot more than just the bird.
Once the duck is presented in all its glory to the table, it’s returned to the kitchen to be broken down. The remaining body is then picked clean and all of the skin and bones are rendered down. From there, the kitchen uses the glorious duck fat and trimmings to make some special items —including a duck fat fried rice, a duck fat soup and handmade duck fat pancakes. All of that comes with the meal so you can chow down on a full five-course meal (this more than makes the $99 price tag worth it, if you bring three friends to split the bill). Then, after you’re likely stuffed to the gills with duck, one last special dish magically appears — and we promise you’ll feel hungry again. Chef Erin Koroll, Departure Denver’s pastry sous chef, has whipped up a huckleberry-duck fat ice cream. To some that sounds amazing, others maybe not so much. But the deliciously rich, creamy texture paired with the freshness of huckleberries makes it a winning dessert. There’s a rumor that the bartenders may make a cocktail with a duck fat wash — if your heart can handle it.
The Peking duck is only around for this one month because of its arduous nature. But we think that’s perfect because the special meal fits well within the holiday season. “It’s the closest thing to a family meal at home,” said chef Vongsakoun. The holiday spirit also translates to the kitchen staff because it requires so many hands. “It’s a time when everybody [in the kitchen] gets involved,” he said. It’s one of his favorite times of the year, and it’s quickly becoming ours, too.
If you want to partake in the season, make sure to get a reservation in order to secure your bird. Some are for sale day-of, but chef Vongsakoun is hoping to break last year’s record.
All photography by Brittany Werges.