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By Rick Day
Tucked into the back corner of the courtyard at 950 N. Western Ave., there sits a nondescript storefront which at first glance might seem to be still under construction with its fully opaque white windows. The only sign of life from the exterior is a small yet bold sign in the middle of the door – Lucky Duck — the newest restaurant from the Cotton Duck Hospitality Group who has introduced us to their other culinary adventures The Gallery and the Peanut Gallery.
Chef Dominic Zumpano cooks everything from the Okonomiyaki to Chicken Katsu at the Lucky Duck.
Upon passing the door, you are greeted with a dark yet surprisingly warm and cozy environment and a setup reminiscent of a quaint restaurant in a back alley of Tokyo. The front seating area features tables and a large booth, and a wooden bar faces the open kitchen. Featured on the wall is a red neon sign in cursive that reads “cocktails” and bathes an abundance of whisky options in red light.
There are three menus at the Lucky Duck – the cocktail, wine, and beer menu, the liquor menu (featuring the aforementioned whiskies, mainly Bourbon and Japanese Whisky), and the food menu. Cocktails feature names that highlight ingredients, reference local places, or even pop culture references. Although the selection provided was tempting, I went off menu with a Buffalo Trace Old Fashioned, which was crafted excellently and served for a great kickoff to my experience.
The food menu has been curated to offer plenty of variety in a relatively limited amount of offerings. The small plates offer a great opportunity to share dishes for the party, and the Robata and Buns provide great options to try a variety of flavors. I settled on the Brussels Sprouts ($8), the Okonomiyaki (“Japanese Pancake” $12), and the buns Big Pig and Chicken Katsu ($4.75 each).
Not long after ordering, a loud pop sounded through the restaurant, announcing the introduction of the Brussels Sprouts to the deep fryer. They arrived to me quickly after, having been tossed in a lime vinaigrette and garnished with sesame seeds. The larger pieces were cooked perfectly, with the crunchy exterior giving way to a softer interior with a fresh vegetable snap at the core, and the rogue leaves that had fallen away provided a great textural crisp. The acid of the vinaigrette cut through the richness of a freshly deep-fried vegetable, and a hint of fish sauce provided some excellent funkiness and umami to the mix.
The next arrival was the first of the buns, the Chicken Katsu. All of the buns are roughly slider size, offering a few bites of succulence. The chicken, breaded and deep fried, offered a pleasant crispiness on the outside and a perfectly cooked juiciness on the inside. The lemongrass chili spiced the dish up without going too overboard, and the thinly sliced pickle provided the acid. All of this was wrapped in a wonderful, pillowy steamed bun.
Soon after came the second bun, the Big Pig. I would return to the Lucky Duck specifically for this sandwich. Never have I had pork belly melt in my mouth quite like it did in this bun. The pork, which is house brined, then baked low and slow, and then sous vide (vacuum sealed and slow cooked in a water bath held at a specific temperature) for 24 hours before being crisped in a pan, was about as close as can be reached with pork perfection. Glazed in a wonderfully sweet, salty, and mildy tart BBQ sauce and accompanied by thinly sliced pickled jalapeño, then wrapped in that same pillowy steamed bun, it is truly a can’t-miss on this amazing menu.
The final arrival of the evening was the Okonomiyaki. Advertised as the “Japanese Pancake”, it was that and so much more. Beginning with thin slices of that delicious pork belly, seared, then topped with a savory batter, this light and fluffy pancake is finished with bulldog sauce (a sweet and tart sauce with a hint of spice) kewpie mayo (Japanese mayo that puts the American stuff to shame), and a sprinkling of bonito flakes. The combination provides a unique and satisfying combination of flavors, balancing the umami of the pork, pancake, and bonito, the tartness of the bulldog sauce, and the richness of the kewpie mayo, each bite has you wanting more.
My experience at the Lucky Duck was top notch – I was already craving a return visit soon after leaving. Chef Dominic Zumpano has curated a menu with flavors that provide a unique experience in the Lake Forest culinary scene. Limited seating and no reservations may result in a wait, or even a delay of your visit, but it remains a must-visit in Lake Forest.