Glutton's guide to Peking duck, part 2 / by Thomas O'Malley

Beautifully bronzed duck, a steamer of papery pancakes, julienned veggies and sticky soybean sauce. Yep, it’s Beijing’s signature quacker. Tens of thousands of ducks are roasted, carved and gobbled up daily in the city’s kaoya dian. But where to eat ducks fit for an emperor?  Where to find the best Peking duck in Beijing? Read part 2 of this guide and find out. (Missed part 1? read it here.)

Dadong, Beijing's Duck Maestro

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Nanxincang International Plaza, 22A Dongsishitiao, Dongcheng District, Beijing. +86 10 5169 0329. 11am-20pm.

The closest northern China has to a bona-fide celebrity chef, Dong Zhenxiang, (aka Dadong) has taken the art of duck roasting to dizzying new heights. ‘Big Dong’ (he’s exceedingly tall) first started developing his idea for ‘superlean’ roast duck whilst working as a chef in a rival duck restaurant. Roasted for longer than tradition dictates in specially conceived spherical ovens that focus the heat, about twice the usual amount of fat is rendered off each Dadong duck (238 RMB) resulting in a crisp, lacquered skin and a less oily bite (many prefer this lighter method; purists have complained it is too dry – whatever the case, it means you can eat more before getting full, which is surely a good thing).

An estimated 800 ducks are roasted daily at Dadong’s trio of restaurants, but this branch is the most interesting, overlooking the restored Ming dynasty imperial granary, called Nanxincang. The brightly lit dining room is rarely less than heaving with locals and tourists rolling overstuffed duck pancakes or choosing from any of the 200 creative dishes that comprise Dadong’s tome-like menu. Whatever you choose, the nightly queues are still all about the duck, so be sure to book ahead.

Suggested dish: Thorny Sea Cucumber, 238 RMB

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Forget about roast duck (for a moment, if you can) - sea cucumber (haishen) is the dish that has won Dadong most recent acclaim amongst Chinese foodies. In his restless pursuit of killer recipes, Dadong studied under a Beijing chef called Wang Yijun, whose signature was a dish of stewed sea cucumber with scallion. Dadong’s take on the dish is suitably bling: the finest thorny sea cucumber from Kato in Japan is rehydrated for several days then stewed and served with braised spring onion and a zingy lemon sorbet. Looks scary but tastes sensational (honest), with a curiously spongy texture and lingering richness.

Insider Tip: Getting to Grips with Dadong’s Menu

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Dadong’s ‘Artistic Conception of Chinese Cuisine’ is an astonishing piece of food literature – certainly the biggest menu this eater has ever thumbed through. Over 200 dishes fill the tome, each supposedly photographed (very elegantly) by Dadong himself. Most dishes have a little background story or historical nugget attached - a reflection of Dadong’s preoccupation with time and place in his pursuit of a contemporary Chinese cooking style.

With such a fusion of ingredients, flavors and techniques on display, bewilderment is a common reaction. What on earth to order? Dadong clearly has a great love for restaurant theatre, so I’d suggest trying some of his showy “house innovations” (marked on the menu) like ‘noodles’ made from lobster meat with a Beijing zhajiang sauce, geoduck clam sashimi (it’s served inside a giant ice globe) or the fillet of kobe beef (blowtorched from raw at your table, naturally.) Go quackers.

Duck de Chine, Cantonese Flair

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1949 – The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti Beilu, Chaoyang District. +86 10 6501 1949. 11am-2.30pm, 6-11pm.

Obsession. The word doesn’t begin to describe the lengths father-son chef team Peter and Wilson Lam have gone to in their pursuit of the perfect Peking duck. “We ate nothing else for nine months,” Wilson told me. The Cantonese chef duo reckons they’ve cracked the formula: 2kg ducks, culled at between 43-45 days old, roasted for exactly 65 minutes over 30 year old date tree wood (imported from neighboring Shanxi), and then left to rest and drain for 10 minutes. Got all that?

Each roasted bird (RMB 238) arrives into the dining room to the chime of a gong, as chefs in slate-grey robes set about carving it into about 120 perfectly proportioned slices of divinely rich skin and lusciously moist meat. Simply put, the skin here (and it’s all about the skin) is more aromatically sweet and perfumed than any other. Don’t tell the locals, but these southerners are beating Beijing at its own game.

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The restaurant itself is the centerpiece of ‘1949 – The Hidden City’, a neo-industrial lifestyle complex built out of a former factory. A rarity in Beijing, it’s both beautifully conceived and modest in scale. Quite possibly the finest Peking duck restaurant, well, anywhere. And to this eater at least, the best Peking duck in Beijing.

Suggested dish: Duck liver terrine on toast, 168 RMB

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One of the world’s premier delicacies, foie gras (fatty goose or duck liver), is a divisive food stuff. Some claim that gavage (force-feeding to engorge the liver) is cruel; others say that the birds, with no gag reflex in their throat, don’t mind at all, thank you very much.

Well, you might be surprised (dismayed?) to learn that Peking ducks are also force-fed. It’s not to fatten the liver; rather to give that all-important layer of fat beneath the skin, and bring the duck to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. I’ve witnessed tianya (literally ‘fill the duck’) at a farm outside Beijing – the process is over in seconds and doesn’t seem particularly cruel.

So you might think of this terrine as foie gras ‘light’ - velvety, creamy and delicate, but with a milder, more balanced richness. A tip – when it’s served, wait five minutes before eating it just to ensure the dish is up to room temperature.

Insider Tip: Designer Duck Accessory

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Peking duck is nothing without its sauce. The signature condiment here owes more to Cantonese cooking than Beijing’s traditional sweet wheaten paste, and it’s made with over 30 herbs and spices, many medicinal. A bit of theatre enhances it further as the waiter drizzles on sesame and peanut paste, whirls it together into a spiral pattern and sprinkles over some crispy fried garlic. “It’s not as strong or salty as the local duck sauce, and it has more layers of flavor,” reckons its creator, Chef Lam. Well, he would say that, but I’m not arguing. And the best part is you can buy a jar to take home.

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Speaking of another kind of sauce, Duck de Chine has the dubious honor of housing China’s first Bollinger champagne bar within its trendy, loft-like innards. It’s the perfect pairing apparently, the crisp bubbles cutting straight through the rich meat. It’s not cheap mind you, at around 1000 RMB a bottle. But I’ve found the more modestly-priced Prosecco (closer to 250 RMB) does the job admirably.

Made in China, a Five Star Duck Experience 

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Grand Hyatt Hotel, 1 East Chang'an Avenue, Dongcheng District, Beijing. +86 10 8518 1234. 11.30am-2.30pm, 5.30-10.30pm.

In the belly of the Grand Hyatt nestles this glam temple to duck-roasting, one of the finest purveyors of Peking duck in the capital. Executive Chef Jin, from a proud line of gruff, tough Beijingers, is from the old school, and his birds, meticulously sourced, prepped, roasted and carved, conform strictly to the Quanjude tradition.

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 as a prelude to one with ‘the works’. The ducks here (RMB 238) really do display a perfectly balanced yin and yang of crisp, lacquered skin and yielding, ivory hued-meat, and the homemade pancakes are non-sticky with a delicious elasticity.

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Grab a table close to the open kitchen to watch Jin’s team at work – some of these black belt roasters have been slinging ducks for over twenty years. It’s quite a dance, and the aromas that fill the dining room are intoxicating.

Made in China go through about fifty ducks a day, and they’re so fastidious about the final product that they even eviscerate and dress the birds themselves. So as you kick back in contemporary dining splendor, spare a thought for the luckless lackey in the service kitchen working his way through a trolley load of plucked Peking plumpers.

Suggested dish:  Signature Kungpao Chicken, 98 RMB

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This guide takes it for granted that you’ll order the duck, but more is the fool who doesn’t get extra fowl, as the saying probably should go. This much-loved Sichuan dish (gongbao jiding) is a staple on menus around Beijing, and probably the single dish most recommended to foreigners by the Chinese, on account of its lack of bones, surfeit of peanuts and sticky-sweet sauce.

At Made in China, a new dimension of texture and taste is achieved with the addition of macadamia nuts and deep-fried, mildly fragrant chilli peppers. Best of all, the sauce is lip-smackingly flavorful without being too cloying.

Insider Tips: How to Eat Peking Duck

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“Three stages and they’re all important!” Head Chef Jin assured me when I asked him to school me on the technique and etiquette of eating Peking duck. You should always begin by taking an amber shard of duck skin and dipping it in sugar. Brittle and oily, it gets the palate sparking. Tender breast meat next (no skin), folded into a pancake together with scallions and a little sauce. Oh mama. And here’s a tip: you’re supposed to use the veggies as a sort of paintbrush to apply the sauce on to the pancake.

Thirdly, the works: pancakes crammed with moist leg meat attached to treacle-hued skin, cucumber, tangy sauce and just a little minced garlic. “The trick is to roll them small enough to eat in one mouthful”, says Jin, “to get the full taste profile.”  Decedent, delicious, and ever so calorific. Does a tastier mouthful of food even exist? Doubtful.

Click here for part 1 f the guide and discover the history of Beijing's signature quacker.