He called me one day with a request. "I want to impress my new lady by taking her to the sexiest restaurant in town," he said. "Where is it?"
I rattled off a few romantic restaurants. They shared the same traits: intimate seating, dim lighting, soft music and good food. He wrinkled his nose. "Those are all kind of expensive," he said. "Anything in the $15 to $20 range?"
"Anything in that price range isn't romantic," I said. "It's the culinary version of a one-night stand."
Recently, when my lovebird friends Richard and Lisa asked me to recommend a romantic restaurant, I impulsively suggested the Peppercorn Duck Club, the 27-year-old restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crown Center. I don't know why I did that, because I hadn't eaten at the PCDC (that's what the Hyatt employees call it) in six years. But Richard and Lisa came back raving about their experience.
"It's a wonderful place," Lisa said. "Why isn't it busier?"
Good question. As trendier restaurants have come and gone, the Peppercorn Duck Club has turned into a relic of an era when dining out was a larger-than-life experience. Sweet little touches remain — personalized matchbooks, American Beauty roses for female patrons — but I'll wager the Duck Club isn't among the top five restaurants that come to mind in this more competitive era. And last month, it stopped serving lunch (until the busy Christmas holiday season).
A friend of mine who used to work there frets about the future of a restaurant that was, for most of the 1980s, one of the most successful and glamorous dining rooms in town. "It was a see-and-be-seen place," Ned says. "Everyone went there — it was always a lot more popular than the American." These days, he complains that the Peppercorn Duck Club hasn't had a makeover in years. "I mean, all that brass trim was ugly even in the 1980s."
Is there a face-lift in the PCDC's future? "It's on the drawing board," says Lou Ann Sudarich, the Hyatt's director of sales and marketing. "There's just no definite date for that." The Peppercorn Duck Club is still successful, she added, and there's no plan to close it.
Sudarich halfheartedly agrees with me that so many '80s elements decorate the dining room that it's now almost fashionably retro. During two recent visits, I realized that I didn't mind the Reagan-era brass trim so much. And I'd be disappointed if anything happened to the shiny rotisserie oven where this restaurant's signature dish roasts slowly, each duck filled with chopped apples and oranges to enhance moisture and flavor.
The luscious fragrance of those roasting birds and the aroma of buttered, herb-sprinkled crusty bread being grilled right in the center of the room are among the sensory pleasures in a dining room with a lot of sexy details. The tables are elegantly set, the banquettes are comfortable and cozy, and the service is extraordinarily attentive.
The only mood killer is the music — dreadful, piped-in, elevator-quality Muzak. A little jazz would definitely heighten the seductive atmosphere. Nonetheless, the Peppercorn Duck Club still pampers patrons in a way that few restaurants do. That's one reason Michael Watt was keen to manage the venerable PCDC after a decade at Milano. "I used to come here as a little boy to have dinner with my father," Watt says. "And my father was treated with such graciousness and respect, he seemed 10 feet taller in my eyes."
I felt a few inches taller — and 10 pounds heavier — after eating too many of those buttery crostini one day with an exceptionally fine butternut squash salad that really wasn't a butternut squash salad. Brenda, our server, explained that the squash was more of a garnish — a pretty ring of chopped amber squash around a plate of crispy frisée and glazed walnuts in a supple, sassy walnut vinaigrette. My friend Sharon's smoked mozzarella salad was less about the cheese than the jumble of greens and curls of fried parsnips served with a satiny balsamic vinaigrette. And Donna's radicchio salad was literally smoky. Chef Jennifer Walzl tosses the bitter greens on the grill for a second, then fancies them up with bits of tart green apple, pumpkin seeds and a sweet pomegranate dressing.
I can count on one hand the number of restaurants in this city that still present a tiny scoop of fruit sorbet as an elegant palate cleanser before the entrée course. At the Duck Club, a dollop of mango ice arrived on frosted glass squares with chilled spoons.
Walzl updates the menu each season, though a few dishes never change: the best-selling rotisserie duck, of course, as well as a mixed grill and a seafood medley that sounded too tempting for either Sharon or Donna to pass up. It might have been the most decadent offering on a sophisticated menu that's seriously sensual. The autumn version involved a succulent grilled lobster tail, jumbo scallops and fat prawns poking up from a fluffy mash of winter root vegetables — carrots, parsnips, turnips and sweet potatoes.
"It's absolutely wonderful," Sharon said, savoring each bite and generously permitting me to steal one of her plump scallops splashed with a light beurre blanc. But I was mesmerized by my own gorgeous, juicy half-duck under a golden crust rubbed with fennel, star anise and sherry. The duck meat was so delicious, it didn't need a sauce, but the tradition here is to bring out several: a silky peppercorn number, a cherry concoction and an intoxicating honey-almond reduction.
After the plates were cleared away, we were encouraged to wander around the Ultra Chocolatta Bar (which is included in the price of the meal, though I remember a much more generous and appealing assortment six years ago). We used silvery tongs to pluck up all kinds of jewel-like confections: dark cocoa truffles, wedges of chocolate ganache torte, pretty butter-cream pastries. Sharon is allergic to chocolate, alas, so chef Walzl created a dessert just for her: a bubbling pan of baked apples under a thick pastry. She was charmed. So was I when I took a hefty spoonful for myself (after eating her chocolate-covered strawberry).
After the elaborate coffee service, in which a simple cup of java arrives with shaved chocolate, orange zest, cinnamon sticks and a swirl of Kahlua-flavored whipped cream, I got the bill, and my friends got long-stem roses. They were so delighted by this gesture that I didn't mind the tab, which was in what I call the "romantic range." It was an expensive experience but rich in warmth and good spirits. And damn it, we were worth it.