At some point early one evening at Stephanie Izard's new Duck Duck Goat, I looked up and wondered, "Who are all the dead Chinese?" That's because the walls of that particular semi-isolated dining room (one of several) are covered with sepia-toned portraits of old-timey Asian people, like a gallery of ghosts, each one tagged with a circular red sticker. A server explained that these incongruous dots are meant to draw the eyes upward when the lights go down and the photos fade into the wallpaper, but they just looked like someone had forgotten to remove price tags after returning from the flea market.
Strange as that may be, I'm guessing this is a small part of what servers are referring to when introducing the restaurant as "reasonably authentic Chinese," a hedge for when food writers and other pedants might start wondering what Izard is trying to say by serving shrimp wonton soup with blueberries and flat fortune cookies with the messages printed on laminated lapel pins.
The busy interiors of Duck Duck Goat, the third restaurant from Izard and her partners in the Boka Restaurant Group, are meant to evoke an "everytown Chinatown," according to its design firm, AvroKO, though one unimpressed wiseacre in my company said it looked like they did their due cultural appropriation at Cost Plus World Market.
As for the food, Izard did her research on well-documented trips to China, and while "reasonably authentic" sounds like an apology, she doesn't have too much to apologize for. The menu is lengthy and in spots could use some editing. But that's not unusual—she goes long at both Little Goat Diner and Girl & the Goat. You just tread carefully.
After Imperial Lamian, Duck Duck Goat is the second major new Chicago restaurant to prominently feature soup dumplings and hand-pulled noodles. Izard's xiao long bao are listed modestly as the third item on the dim sum menu. They appear almost discouragingly flat and saucerlike, but each one that arrived at my table was structurally sound, with a thin, translucent wrapper that revealed some of the character of the surprising broth within—dark, hot, and redolent of five-spice seasoning. They're remarkable, especially in light of the disasters I wrote about at Imperial Lamian.
Among other highlights on the dim sum menu, wood-fried duck hearts are fat, smoky, steaky bird nuggets set on a mild horseradish-sesame sauce that would be improved with only just a bit more sinus-searing heat. The jiaozi are pot stickers filled with unctuous beef short rib and marrow—classic, over-the-top Izard in terms of fattiness—garnished with bright counterpoints such as fruity, tart Fresno chiles. (The frequent appearance of Fresnos on this menu suggests that Izard may have found a substitute for her kimchi addiction.) Meanwhile a trio of large, crusty crab Rangoon, filled with thin molten cream cheese and served with a smoked pineapple dipping sauce, could use a little more innovation, and a thick slab of shrimp toast is garnished minimally with fermented aioli and something like giardiniera.
The affinity for vivid pickled flavors surfaces again and again. It's in the octopus, peanut, and cucumber salad (more Fresnos). It's in the cheong fun, cylindrical rice noodles seared in the wok with XO sauce and tossed with Chinese sausage, shrimp, and cuttlefish. And it's in the bowl of Sichuan eggplants and goat, with pickled Facing Heaven Bullet Peppers that taste like pepperoncini, all smothered with bean sprouts and fried shallots.
Other dishes display a more fearless approach with spicing, such as the Chongqing chicken: smoky boneless nuggets crusted in chiles and sesame seeds, tossed with shishitos and those aforementioned Bullet Peppers. Mapo tofu, electric with Sichuan peppercorns, is about as respectable a version as you'll find anywhere in town.
Also evident, and not unexpected for Izard, are dishes that push the tolerance for fat to superhuman levels. Both duck fried rice with a gooey soy-braised egg and seafood fried rice with smoked clams are saturated with so much oil that it seems a "reasonably authentic" approach to the cliche that American Chinese food is invariably a grease trap. Same goes for thick, ruddy hand-pulled "slap" noodles with shrimp, eggplant, goat sausage, and mushrooms that rise from the plate fairly dripping.
A handful of challenging cocktails, one with duck-fat-washed bourbon, plum, and root beer, and another with mushroom-infused whiskey and musty rice wine, test the limits of what should be legal on a drink menu. More delicate options, such as a Tang-like vodka, carrot, ginger, and turmeric combo or a frothy tea-infused whiskey potion with a marigold floater, seem like something you might feel safe introducing to the underage. Best stick with the wine list, which offers a decent number of bottles, whites in particular, that can handle these flavor profiles.
Things are bit more surprising at dessert, where a tart, almost yogurtlike almond milk panna cotta is topped with crunchy cereal and drizzled with thick black vinegar, and a mound of shaved rhubarb ice conceals a chile-infused blueberry sorbet.
And while surprises are what we've come to expect from Izard, there aren't as many at Duck Duck Goat as you'd hope for. Most dishes are well executed, but I almost wish Izard had been less reasonable in her search for authenticity and pushed the boundaries further. v