A dozen of Beijing's best Peking ducks / by Thomas O'Malley

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This calorific study of crispy skinned fowl for the Beijinger magazine was a labour of love. A couple of years on and Duck de Chine remains Beijing's best Peking duck (and therefore possibly the world's). The other eleven are worth your time too.

Duck de Chine

Ranking: 1, price: RMB 238+10%

“We ate nothing but duck for nine months.” Father-son chef team Peter and Wilson Lam didn’t let coronary heart failure stand in the way of their mission to crack the quacker. But what did the Cantonese duo learn? “2kg ducks, culled at between 43-45 days old, roasted for exactly 65 minutes over 30 year old date tree wood (imported from Shanxi).” Got all that? Simply put, the skin here (and it’s all about the skin) is more aromatically sweet and perfumed than any other. And the multi-layered, house-made hoisin , topped theatrically with sesame, peanut paste and crisp fried garlic, puts this duck out of sight.

Made in China

Ranking: 2, price: RMB 238+15%

Yes it’s in a five star hotel, but this kaoya dian is strictly old-school. Executive Chef Jin, a gruff, tough Beijinger, presides over a small team of black belt roasters, several of whom have been slinging ducks for over two decades. Presentation is impeccable; Made in China serves a separate dish of skinless breast meat, which you’re supposed to eat wrapped in a pancake with scallions after skin dipped in sugar and as a prelude to ‘the works’:  leg meat, skin, cucumber, duck sauce and a little minced garlic. “Roll them small enough to eat in one mouthful,” advises Jin. Oops, too late.

Chynna

Ranking: 3, price: RMB 239+15%

Chynna gives Beijing's specialist duck restaurants a stiff lesson in fowl-roasting. Thick, remarkably non-greasy skin has a shatteringly crisp yet yield texture - you can actually hear the knife bite through it when the chef starts carving. The lean meat is succulent and rich; you’ll be stuffed after three or four pancakes. And because they only roast a few birds each service, you feel like your dish has had the care and attention such noble fowl deserves.

Dadong

Ranking: 4, price: RMB 238

Dadong’s ‘Artistic Conception of Chinese Cuisine’ is one of the few menus you could use to fight off an armed assailant. The weighty tome contains an astonishing 200 dishes (photographed by the man himself), some looking more like abstract sculptures than edibles. But most customers never make it past page one – his “superlean” roast duck. Da Dong's now much imitated slower roast apparently renders off twice the fat of birds cooked the Quanjude way, resulting in a typically crisp, lacquered skin and a drier, firmer lean meat. Worth lining up for? Yes, but try the sea cucumber too.

International Food Warehouse

Ranking: 5, price: RMB 188

Flanked on all sides by blazing woks and enticing aromas, IFW, in the belly of the Yintai Center, feels more like an upscale food court than a hotel restaurant. Chef Yang's kaoya, arranged like flower petals on a single large plate, manages to be rich and succulent yet light on the stomach. Roasted in electric ovens due to fire regulations, the secret, according to Yang, is temperature control. "Adjusting the oven temperature several times during cooking allows us to control the oiliness."

Bianyifang

Ranking: 5, price: RMB 148-198

Beijing’s newest oldest duck restaurant has been recently restored to its perch on 'Fresh Fish Crossroads' (pun intended) - better known as Xianyukou Hutong, an ersatz street food alleyway that meanders east from Qianmen Avenue. Back in the 1400s, Bianyifang developed the ‘closed-oven’ technique for roasting duck. The restaurant still uses this technique today, whereas almost all its competitors now use the Quanjude-pioneered method of roasting over an open flame. In practice, Bianyifang’s method results in the duck skin being softer and paler, the meat juicier and ever so slightly pink, with a higher ratio of meat to skin. If you take your lean meat seriously, this is a royal feast.

Xiheyayuan

Ranking: 7, price: RMB 223

Xiheyayuan’s beautifully presented birds have tender flesh and crisp, full skin, but fall short of the very best on aromatic quality. Full marks, however, for their exceedingly clever, custom-made circular condiment containers. A steamer of spinach-flavored and plain pancakes rests over a candle in the middle keeping them warm and non-sticky (brilliant!). It's surrounded by little clock-face compartments with all the usual fillers plus raspberry sauce (in which to dip the skin) and minced garlic. They also do a duck meat pizza, which is just silly.

Jiuhuashan Roast Duck

Ranking: 8, price: RMB 168

This little-known duck restaurant in west Beijing fills out on weekends with a mostly local crowd. George W. Bush ate there, which counts for something – though he probably just got lost on his way to the zoo. It’s unashamedly untrendy and low-key, but the duck, in the Quanjude tradition, earns plaudits from some of Beijing’s most notable homegrown foodies. Worth a trip if you live towards the west side of the city, and more authentically ‘Beijing’ (and less touristy) than most on this list.

Jingzun

Ranking: 9, price: RMB 98

With a bit of DIY tinkering, the duck here is a delicious bargain. Here’s what you do - tell your fuwuyuan that you want it cooked for an extra ten minutes. This both crisps the skin and firms up the flesh, with big gains in flavor. It’s like getting a Dadong duck at less than half the price. Well, maybe that’s pushing it, but still the best duck in Beijing under 100 RMB.

Lunar 8

Ranking: 10, price: RMB 248+15%

Only the plumpest 45-day-old birds are selected for Lunar 8’s basement show kitchen. Black-robed chefs man the tall, red-brick ovens, roasting the ducks longer for a leaner bite. A signature rub of medicinal herbs and spices helps crisp up and flavor the skin, giving it a perfumed, aromatic quality.

Quanjude

Ranking: 11, price: RMB 239

What we think of as Peking duck - pancakes, hung ovens, fruit wood – is all down to Quanjude. One of China’s 500 “most valuable brands”, the quality across the dozen or so branches is nevertheless inconsistent, and the birds tend to be somewhat clumsily presented, which irks when you're paying a tourist premium. Mind you, I’ve never had a bad one, and you do get a numbered certificate of authenticity with each bird, at least at the Hepingmen branch. And the duck heart dumplings are super.

Xiangman Lou

Ranking: 12, price: RMB 168

This long-running standby still delivers dependably tasty duck at its trio of restaurants. They are a notch cheaper than the headline-grabbers, although prices have gone up considerably. Dependable jiachang cai (homestyle dishes) makes this place popular with local families, so you may have to queue - they only take reservations before 6.30pm.