Notes from a Small Island: Duck Soup Inn
July 30, 2004

Duck Soup Inn is a precious restaurant tucked away behind a small pond and kept cool by giant pines. In certain times of the year, dripping wisteria provides added shade and scent.

Every time I visited Friday Harbor, my sisters and I contrived to drag our quite willing parents and their credit cards to dinner at this our favorite restaurant. When Dr. Mathra and I entertained the idea of getting married on the Island, I knew Duck Soup Inn would somehow play a major role. Rehearsal dinner? Reception? The gastrobilities were endless.

This year -- seven years since my last visit -- my and Dr. Mathra's stomachs were more than ready to take a trip down my memory lane. The day before our momentous dinner, I was coached by family friends about what I should order, thus, Dr. Mathra, Ma Keckler, and I went to our dinner fully prepped and enormously hungry. Sadly, a recommended chicken dish with blueberry-habañero sauce wasn't on the menu. Apparently, this dish appeared some time ago and was adored by three extensions of the Fitch Family, but then it disappeared and no pleadings for its return has brought about a re-materialization. Since it is infrequent that I find a chicken dish at a restaurant that truly merits such salivating praise, I also must add my plea for Duck Soup Inn to bring back this dish. If only so I can taste it just once to see what all the fuss is about!

Gabe made us promise to try the local Westcott Bay Oysters scalped up from the NW side of the island. Fine with me -- I'm always up for oysters. We ordered three appetizers and shared them around. I got my chance at the local shellfish with a cast-iron platter of Applewood-smoked oysters with roasted tomato coulis traditionally nestled in a bed of rock salt. Wow. The little darlings were fat from the oven and juicy with with the rich coulis. As we worked our way through the platter, I realized that the bacony flavor I was getting came straight from the Applewood smoking. Brilliant.

Ma Keckler ordered and shared her summer truffle bruschetta described as "hot grilled sourdough topped with pecorino tartufo cheese, sliced ripe tomato, mushroom relish, and a drizzle of white truffle oil." I love me some mushrooms and this dish didn't let me or anyone else at the table down. The tomatoes added a nice fresh tang to the earthy mushrooms and salty pecorino. We sell pecorino tartufo in my shop but I've never cooked with it and now I have a recipe idea to pass along to my customers.

Dr. Mathra's appetizer was a twice-baked Dungeness crab lemongrass soufflé with spicy yellow curry sauce and cilantro oil. This was the first delicious indication of the Indian/Asian influence felt throughout Duck Soup Inn's current menu. The soufflé came fallen -- as befitting "twice-baked" -- and chock-full of spiced crab. We took turns cutting into the top-crispy soufflé and dredging the pieces through the two sauces. The curry sauce was an opaque, mustardy color and the cilantro oil was a crystal-clear green and both were incredible accompaniments to the crab. Gentle eater, I've consumed a lot of food in my day, but it's been a long time since I tasted something so completely alive with the purest flavors.

God, that was good crab.

We did have a hard time narrowing our appetizer choices to just the three. Tuna tartare with ginger, lime, sesame, and hot chili garnished with tobikos, crispy sesame-toasted rice and wasabi crema was tempting. I was sure my mother would order the "70s Flashback" of a ripe avocado stuffed with fresh Oregon shrimp that had been marinated with tarragon, chives, lemon zest, and organic extra virgin olive oil. The avocado came coasting on a pool of green goddess dressing -- a dressing invented in San Francisco in the 20s. There was also the freeform seafood ravioli stuffed with scallop, shrimp, oyster, and Westcott Bay clams in a sherry mussel broth, but Dr. Mathra has a violent reaction to scallops. He loves them but his stomach doesn't.

Bring on the main courses!

Oh, wait, not yet -- we got soup and salad with our meals as well! The soup was lemon-spinach topped with crème fraîche and julienned won-ton. It was fresh and clean and bursting with bright, summer flavors. The salad was a simple display of organic greens, a disk of hard-boiled egg, and thin ruby rounds of beets. A little ramekin of crumbled blue cheese was brought to the table as an optional topping. And you know, blue cheese and beets? Perfection salad. But not the gross 50s concoction, you understand.

When we finally moved onto our mains, we again had a hard time choosing only three. Since the Westcott Bay oysters were so delicious as an appetizer, Dr. Mathra decided to order them again. His pan-fried oysters in a stoneground cornmeal crust were served with smokey paprika-chipotle aïoli, giant cous cous and coriander-lime slaw.

Ma Keckler's chicken in corn cream was a free-range breast stuffed with Manchego cheese and fresh basil that had been baked in yogurt, cumin, and fresh corn cream. This dish was also served with a side of giant cous cous but this cous cous was drizzled with Spanish smoked-paprika oil.

And though I was extremely tempted by the Gulf prawns in a roasted shallot blackberry-dill butter sauce, I selected the grilled fresh fish of the day, which was Alaskan halibut coated in a balsamic-shallot butter sauce and served with creamy polenta and a homegrown herb and flower salad. Finally, I just have to mention that Patrick's kelp-dusted (harvested from San Juan Island) sea scallops with mizutake sauce and cashew jasmine rice cakes sounded extremely interesting.

There were clearly a lot of winners on the menu.

Did we really have room for dessert? We sure did, and we shared around the homegrown golden plum and raspberry cobbler with lavender crust and vanilla ice cream along with a dessert that put me in permanent heaven: Kewra-scented coconut cream pie. All I know about kewra is that it's a New Zealand or Asian fruit that made the cream taste and smell like something I've never had before. On my tongue and up in my nose, it had notes of lilac and passionfruit, and even in the dim light, I could see that the cream had a slight tinge of green or purple to it. The pie itself was shingled with thick, flat pieces of coconut, not those dehydrated little fizzle-bits you buy in crunchy bags.

To accompany our incomparable dishes, Dr. Mathra and I chose glasses of Pinot Noir Carneros from Steele Vineyards in California and Ma Keckler had an Oregon Pinot Gris from Foris that delighted her to no end.

What a night.

What a meal.

What an island!

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