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We arrive at Otto’s unfashionably early. The booking process, once you’ve asked for “the duck”, is a sort of negotiation in which they try to work out how to share the great man’s time around the room during service. We were told that 6.15pm was the only slot he could make.
We’re led to a corner table hemmed in on two sides by wine racks and on the third by the cart, the linen-draped stage for the evening’s performance. “This,” says Otto, “is going to take at least an hour, so take your time, order some starters and we’ll get on.”
He begins by melting a cube of brown sugar in a pan, adds red wine in generous quantity, turns up the meths flame and begins his story.
Otto Albert Tepassé is from an Austrian family of hoteliers and restaurateurs. He worked in some of the greatest dining rooms in Paris, including La Tour D’Argent, spiritual home of the pressed duck. Canard à la presse, depending on your view, is either a triumphant peak in restaurant history or an absurdly rich stunt food of interest only to completists with unlimited cash and probably terminal gout.
In the traditional way, Otto is proactive at the table, directing you away from any starters that would be too much before the main event. The crab cake is a mould of white meat over a celeriac remoulade, dressed with tomato-and-apple salsa. Smoked salmon is carved, naturally, tableside.
Otto continues his story: coming to London, working at the original Mirabelle, moving on to seemingly every important room in town. Now, he explains, he is older, tired and simply wants to run this, his first restaurant, quietly and well. A waiter interrupts to introduce us to our duck for the evening. It still has its head and some feathers. It will have been killed without being bled, so as to be dark and gamey.
The pan, already smelling superb, now contains a treacly smear of the reduced wine and, as the duck goes back to be roasted for 20 minutes, a waiter brings a jug of rich duck stock that Otto pours in and begins to reduce further. Soon after, the duck’s liver, raw and finely chopped, is added to the sauce to “infuse”.
There is a pause. We sip our wine and look around. Otto’s is rescued from arch kitschery by the sweet honesty of its intent. It could be naff as hell, but here a life-size poster of Ava Gardner in her underwear just makes you think how absolutely fine Ava Gardner looked in her underwear. Five minutes in Otto’s, and irony wilts.
Waiters bring back the roast duck in procession. Otto flambés it in brandy and deftly whips off the breasts and legs – before stuffing the carcass into the press itself …this looks like something between a torture instrument and a rococco sex toy. It is silver, shaped like a warhead and has a screw and wheel sticking out of the top. It could possibly take a human head – though this time it’s just the duck. Waiters put serious muscle into spinning down the wheel and squidging every drop of juice, blood and marrow into a jug. “Oh Christ,” whispers my date. “There’s spatter!”
Otto pours in the juices and whisks. He whips off the skin from the breasts with the back of a spoon, slices them thinly and spreads them across the bottom of two white bowls. The sauce is waved under our noses. It is the colour and texture of melted chocolate and smells like the distillation of everything pleasurable in sin. I can never know what Cleopatra smelled like when she wafted up to Mark Antony on her barge with evil on her mind, but I’m prepared to bet it wasn’t half as beguiling as the concentrated essence of a high-quality water bird.
I would have been content with that sauce, a couple of straws and maybe permission to take my shirt off – but, before you finish, tradition has one last trick to pull. As you lean back in a delirium of satiety, they bring out the legs (remember them?) roasted to melting texture and served with wild mushrooms and a frisée salad. Then you laugh at the thought of dessert and try to take in what you’ve just experienced.
I wanted pressed duck at La Tour D’Argent ever since I read about it as a 13-year-old. I loved the Grand Guignol excess and mad decadence, but it was 30 years later when I finally got there. Now canard à la presse is in London, being performed by a man who understands its tradition. If you love food, I urge you to go to Otto’s, and open your heart both to a piece of pure food theatre and to that rare thing: a meal you’ll remember your whole life.
182 Gray’s Inn Road
London WC1X 8EW
020 7713 0107
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer