The Duck Club
If there’s anyone who knows about starting from scratch, it’s chef Evan
Crandall. When he joined the Lafayette Park Hotel’s Duck Club last
November, the staff had suffered several major losses: The head chef,
sous chef, pastry chef, and food and beverage manager had all left to
work at Bing Crosby’s in Walnut Creek. To hold the business together,
line cook Patrick Fassino was working all day, every day. With a busy
holiday season approaching, getting a new lineup in place was critical.
When Crandall came aboard, he made Fassino sous chef and hired a new crew. Over time, the team tore apart the old menu and created something new. “It was difficult,” Crandall says, “but it gave me the chance to start from scratch with an entirely new team.” Looking back, he sees the turnover as more of a blessing than a burden.He’s not the only one. Now, almost a year later, two things are clear: The Duck Club was ready for change, and Crandall was the right man for the job. Not only does he have experience cooking in hotels—Crandall was most recently executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency in Burlingame, and he has worked at several hotels in San Francisco—but he has also quickly developed a keen sense of the likes and dislikes of his new East Bay customers.
Some of his regulars—people who have been going to the Duck Club for years—aren’t afraid to call him when the daily baked quiche, a longtime menu favorite at the restaurant’s adjacent Bistro at the Park, isn’t quite the way they like it. And while Crandall realizes he must respect their expectations, he is moving the Duck Club forward by offering a seasonally changing menu comprising high-quality foods like wild salmon, Cortez diver scallops, and locally grown, organic produce. He’s even hired a forager to shop farmers markets each day for fresh ingredients. Although he doesn’t believe in fusion, he does believe in something for everyone, which means the styles on his menu range from Asian and Mediterranean to French and Californian.
All of that has meant a bit of a price increase, but we agree with Crandall that it’s worth it. The most expensive salad, nearly twice the price of the others, demonstrates pure genius. Tender ovals of Maine lobster mingle sweetly with just-picked baby mizuna greens and slices of fresh mango and avocado. Dressed with a sharp, pickled-ginger vinaigrette and topped with tiny green spheres of tobiko (flying fish roe), it is a feast for the eyes and a revelation on the palate.
Crandall strives to use ingredients that are utterly fresh, including such handmade delicacies as the black pepper pappardelle that he buys fresh from a local market. Toothy, wide ribbon noodles are bathed in a Chardonnay reduction sauce with grilled chicken, olive oil–braised artichokes, wild mushrooms, and roasted garlic. It’s California-style Italian: comforting and flavorful.
Both the lobster salad and the pappardelle reveal Crandall’s knack for taking somewhat surprising combinations of ingredients and making them sing. In another appetizer, a classic combination of fleshy pink tuna and delightfully briny bits of Dungeness crab is formed into a drum-shaped mound and topped with lively spring greens. The odd components of the dressing, an avocado coulis and white truffle–laced ponzu, heighten the flavor of the other ingredients.
In yet another example of his artistry, a tenderloin of beef, finished with gorgonzola cheese, is made richer by potatoes mashed with lobster stock. While I would have never thought to pair lobster stock with meat and potatoes, I’m not complaining. In fact, I’m thankful to have been introduced to this sinfully satisfying treat.
Sometimes, however, Crandall’s innovation derails. On one visit, a sad combination of orders left us wondering where the magic went. A Caesar salad was overdressed, and pancetta-wrapped scallops, paired with seared foie gras and wild mushroom risotto, suffered from mismatched flavors and were drowned under a too-thick lemon-caviar butter. A veal chop lay lifeless beneath an over-reduced red wine sauce with shallots and porcini mushrooms.
Luckily, though, even on an off night the desserts shine. Pastry chef Mark Rincon’s desserts are refreshing and simple. Sorbets and ice creams are homemade, as is the plate of cornmeal krumieri, shortbread, and chocolate cookies. Lime cheesecake, huge and magnificent, is almost as good as the selection of local cheeses, which is served with walnut bread and grapes. Fresh espresso provides a fitting coda to it all.
The one thing that hasn’t changed since Crandall’s arrival is the professionalism of the front-of-the-house staff, many of whom have been with the hotel for a decade. Invigorated by the new menu and kitchen personnel, they seem truly excited to continue with Crandall on his seasonal and delicious path.
Even though it’s been open since 1987, this latest incarnation of the Duck Club is the freshest thing to hit Lafayette in a while.
The Duck Club, Lafayette Park Hotel and Spa, 3287 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-7108, www.lafayetteparkhotel.com. Appetizers $6-$17, entrées $24-$36, desserts $7-$9. Breakfast Mon.-Sun., lunch Mon.–Fri., dinner nightly, brunch Sun.