A lightbulb went off after Ashish Alfred scanned the list of dishes he wanted to serve at his future restaurant in Bethesda two years ago. Noticing a duck here, a duck there, along with some foie gras, he called a connection in New York and ran Duck Duck Goose past her. “Don’t tell anyone — and call a lawyer,” she told the chef, who went on to open a petite restaurant using the string of words in 2016.
Duck Duck Goose, on the corner of Norfolk and Cordell avenues, is a fun name for a serious restaurant hatched after Alfred’s training at the French Culinary Institute, where the Derwood native graduated in 2009, and kitchen duty at such diverse New York establishments as the French-themed Daniel and the Italian-inspired Lupa. While not without its flaws, Duck Duck Goose is a solid neighborhood attraction whose appeal lies in the amalgam of many fine points.
When a companion asks for a martini with a cocktail onion, a garnish the bar is missing, a staff member dashes outside to retrieve the stranger’s request. The gratis bread could be better, but the slices are presented on a raised porcelain stand with herbed butter paving part of the plate. Don’t see anything you fancy? Alfred has been known to whip up alternatives on the spot — steak and mashed potatoes, soups prepared from available vegetable purees — based on the answer to “What are you in the mood for?”
Duck Duck Goose puts the guest front and center. And while he owns the business, Alfred, 32, sees himself as having a lot of bosses, foremost his staff. “I work for them,” he says. “I need to keep the lights on.”
The chef has an eye for what looks good. Roasted Japanese eggplant, an appetizer on the dinner menu, is a slender purple vessel for yogurt kissed with lemon zest and accents of scarlet Fresno peppers, breezy mint and pistachios. Scallops, bronzed and crisp from a cast-iron pan, shine in a wreath of Israeli couscous punctuated with balls of compressed apple and lit up with golden nasturtium petals. The center of the plate resembles stained glass, “painted” as it is with thinned parsnip puree and parsley oil. (The best approach is to catch some scallop, couscous and sauce in every forkful.)
Duck is aged a few days before it is roasted, carved into crisp-skinned pieces and presented with both glazed beets and a beet puree, which appear as comb-like stripes on the white plate. Then there’s ratatouille, slices of grill-singed zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant and tomato arranged to form a colorful spiral in their pan. The smoky vegetables are affixed to the casserole with a puree of their trimmings plus garlic. Good chefs know not to waste a scrap of anything in their kitchens.
Duck Duck Goose’s single-page menu tries not to leave anyone out. For fish fanciers, there’s branzino elevated on creamy white beans and finished with celery leaves; vegetarians are welcomed with the increasingly popular “steak” carved from cauliflower, served here on a smoked date puree and with pickled florets. Among the “shares” on the menu are three pastas that an individual might want to order, just for himself. They include a risotto dappled with smoky bacon, sweet English peas and pinches of goat cheese; lamb Bolognese that uses white wine rather than red (which the chef thinks overpowers the ground meat); and tender agnolotti stuffed with pea puree and brie cheese, a filling likely to change with the season. Lunch brings a terrific steak sandwich with twice-fried frites as good as any around, plus a deal of a meal in the form of a changing soup, salad and half-sandwich for a mere $14.
Alfred says he’s tried, and failed, to remove chicken Forgione from the menu. This champion of the signature, named after the New York chef who inspired it, Marc Forgione of “Iron Chef” fame, hopes public support for the simple pleasure never flags. There’s great appeal in a juicy chicken, crisped beneath a brick, and framed with roasted potatoes and bok choy.
The thought bubble over my head while I was eating otherwise satisfying beef tournedos set on a sea of red wine jus: Thinly sliced, grill-striped foie gras, a component of the entree, is a ringer for a flap of tire. Duck Duck No Thanks! Profiteroles are also a waste of stomach space. Both the dull cream puffs and the chocolate sauce need to be rethought. For something sweet, the better choice is the two-toned white chocolate pot de crème — half sprinkled with lemon zest, half paved with mashed raspberries — courtesy of chef de cuisine Carson Schneider, formerly with Mirabelle in Washington.
While the tables are annoyingly close to one another and Edison lightbulbs ought to be retired by now, the dining room reveals charm in its trim marble bar, the source of some fine cocktails, and a glass divider separating cooks from customers, who can still observe one another.
Alfred, who also owns the nearby George’s Chophouse, named for his late brother, plans to open a second Duck Duck Goose in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood by the end of this month. Something tells me Charm City is going to embrace all the details.
7929 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda.
Open: Lunch Tuesday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Dinner appetizers $6 to $21, main courses $13 to $95 (rib-eye for two).
Sound check: 75 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.