Let me just get this out of the way: Duck's Cosmic Kitchen has the best damn doughnuts I've ever had. In his latest book, Donuts: An American Passion, John T. Edge writes of doughnuts that "evoke the culinary and cultural fabric of our nation." On first reading, I thought that assertion was a little far-reaching. It must have been fate that Mr. Edge's book arrived on my desk just a couple of days before my first trip to Duck's. I am now a firm believer in the gospel of doughnuts, and it was the heavy, sugary, cinnamon dream that they produce at Duck's that converted me. I am surprised at the force of my own conviction. But then, there's a lot about Duck's that is surprising.
At first glance, Duck's Cosmic Kitchen seems like a fancy sandwich joint. The sandwiches run in the $7-$9 range. But then you see that every sandwich comes with a green salad or potato salad. When your food arrives, you realize that the bread, perhaps a hearty and delicious walnut and leek loaf, is baked fresh on location. The salad dressing has the appealing sweetness of fresh basil. Service is warm, like hanging out with distant but fond relatives. On every level, Duck's is likely to exceed expectations.
Duck's is housed in a small square building in back of the East Decatur Station, and it's hard to imagine how such a tiny kitchen could turn out all those goodies. The work space completely takes up the indoors, apart from a small counter and bakery case. Tables are along the side of the building's exterior, with a small satellite room across a pretty lawn.
Sit at one of the metal tables and you are likely to be greeted by any of the women who bake, serve at the counter and wait tables, or by a gentle and friendly waiter named Joe who has the word "RAGE" tattooed across his knuckles. Either Joe has lost a lot of that rage or he knows how to control it with Zen-like mastery. Sitting down at the table beside you to tell you about the menu, he is the picture of calm.
Duck's has a nice wine-by-the-glass list, and a very good selection of dessert wines. But the proper drink to go with these sandwiches is one of the high-gravity beers from the beer list. Pair a Belgian ale with Duck's James Calvin sandwich -- a delicious pulled pot roast with horseradish sauce and Dijon on that walnut leek bread -- and you'll be in hearty heaven.
Other sandwiches worth putting off your doughnut for are the house-cured salmon on baguette, the bistro pork and the roast chicken. The ladies at Duck's are not skimpy with the lovely cured salmon that is not too fishy or salty, and soft as butter. The bistro pork is a thick handful of pulled Marble Farms pork with banana peppers. The roast Spring Mountain Farms chicken sandwich comes with goat cheese, red peppers and arugula. If I were to bake my own bread, roast my own meats and carefully pick and source my veggies and condiments, this is what a homemade sandwich at my house would look like. Or at least I'd like to imagine it would be this good.
Duck's also offers a selection of pizzas, all of them baked with freshly made dough. I particularly liked the panzanella pizza, which is basically a huge arugula, tomato and chicken salad on top of crispy pizza dough.
The menu is well-suited for the nibblers among us. A cheese and herb custard is basically a cheesy soufflé served with apple and bread rounds for dipping and spreading. One of my favorite dishes on the menu is the warm shrimp cakes appetizer, which comes with grapefruit and avocado, and a lovely Asian dressing, all citrus and sesame.
There are many temptations in that bakery case for dessert, including a lusciously heavy carrot cake and several versions of a gooey cheesecake. These are all worthy selections, if you can put off that doughnut for a while more. I have taken to bringing one home with me for breakfast the next morning (because this is a heavy cake doughnut, it keeps much longer than the raised-yeast kind). A few minutes warming in the oven and doughnut perfection is mine. The heavy round of cake boasts a crust that seems to be made of pure sugar and cinnamon, like some childhood food fantasy fantastically coming to life. This is a doughnut that could not be mass-produced. There is simply too much love involved, too much care in production, and it comes through with every sticky, sugar-crunching, crumbly bite. Under no circumstances should you leave Duck's without trying one of these treats, or buying one for later consumption. There's a lot to like about Duck's Cosmic Kitchen, but when it comes to the doughnuts, we're talking about the very culinary and cultural fabric of the nation. So show some respect.
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