Don’t let the name fool you: With small-plate aesthetics, a “locavore” mindset, and Prohibition craft cocktails, Odd Duck is very much of a piece with today’s slow-food dining movement. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As the former executive chef for Lowlands Group restaurants (Trocadero, Café Hollander), Odd Duck owner Ross Bachhuber has teeth well-sharpened on comforting, romanticized bar food. A recent trip by The A.V. Club tested whether Odd Duck could bring anything new to the realm of hip, medium-upscale dining, or if it’s simply another excuse to toss around terms like “charcuterie” and “locally sourced.”
The space: Around the corner from Café Centraal and a forthcoming Alterra, the Duck also forms an interesting love triangle with forever-standing Collector’s Edge Comics and the neon-lit seediness of Bay View Sports Bar across the street. Housed in the space formerly occupied by Future Green, Odd Duck is also bigger than you’d think. High ceilings lead well back from K.K.’s bustle, as well as past a small, semi-open, highly aromatic kitchen. The reclaimed wood and exposed brick of the interior feel inevitable, as do Edison bulbs hanging in clusters of mason jars; the individual potted plants for every table and random longhorns strewn about the walls feel ironically kitschy. But it’s all done in a charming, shoulder-shrugging, “we’re about the food” vibe.
The service: Relaxed, smiley, and severely passionate. Our server complimented our drink orders and recited the list of dishes the restaurant had just run out of as if it were a litany of his own personal failures. Here was a man who cared—right down to getting his knees dirty in an effort to fix our wobbly table. He was just as quick with informed recommendations as he was with the water pitcher. And, in one of the better things to come out of a waiter’s mouth in some meals, he advised, “You should take your time.”
The A.V. Club’s food: Take your time, indeed—a recent Thursday had us studying 22 options on the changing-daily list of small plates. That was before we turned the menu over. Not only does Duck have good length, it has width to boot: Everything from French to Mediterranean to Asian cuisine seemed at least aptly represented.
If, like us, you’ve always wanted to combine a requisite pre-dinner salad with your gin, then the arugula gimlet ($9) does just the trick. The drink led naturally into the extensive “Meat” section of the menu. From Madison’s Underground Meats—local, because of course—the nduja ($4) came in spreadable, andouille-like perfectness, while the goat salami ($4) was hard and dry—combined with the spicy, whole-seed mustard and crusty bread, it approached the upscale sausage-flavor package of what it might be like to go tailgating with Wolfgang Puck.
By now emboldened by a potent orange bourbon manhattan ($9), three tapas choices seemed clear. King oyster mushroom “scallops” ($6) kicked things off, the earthy mushroom jus punched in its fungus head by some Southwestern chilis. Distinct and obvious: Why hasn’t Campbell’s thought to take bland mushrooms up a notch with some spice? Lamb albondigas ($9)—satisfying in their smoky paprika element, but none too spectacular in the Chef Boyardee texture—may have been better suited for a sloppy meatball bomber at the bar. The Spanish flatbread ($9), with charry spots on the outside crust, salty chorizo slices, manchego, and an onion-pepper panache was like an artisanal white, dry pizza, and came just a hot sauce away from stealing the whole night.
Despite our being—maybe understandably—not hungry, the pork belly bulgogi ($16) from the Large Plate menu seemed journalistically necessary. With hints of roasted garlic and unexpected turns of fruit over creamy rice, and lovingly bedded in a tender, runny quail egg, the strips of seared, moist pig hinted at the apotheosis of pork passion.
A tortoise-paced dinner led to the point where coffee would have interfered with welcome and full-gutted sleep—otherwise, the Anodyne brew served in personal French presses seemed one of the more unique, considerate restaurant flourishes we’d seen in some time.
The verdict: Odd Duck could easily, and complimentarily, be called the new La Merenda. Or it could be pegged as another in a list of “it” spots for beards and tat-counting. But labels, critiques, and trend-exhaustion be damned—there’s little argument against such thoughtful, impassioned cooking.