The Duck Debate
So, where to go for the best Peking Duck in Beijing? I was tempted to go to Quanjude just for the spectacle, which with its two thousand seats is the biggest restaurant in the city. However, Time Out warns against it as a tourist trap with doughy pancakes and overly greasy meat. Instead they recommend Liqun but this place also gets a good slagging from some for being a tourist haunt with bad service and food, although the hutong location and authentic surroundings might make it worth a visit.
I decided instead to go to Da Dong (Advanced B) which has been voted Best Restaurant Overall and Best Beijing Duck restaurant by Chinese readers of the Beijinger website in the 2011 Restaurant Awards (and for the previous few years). There are three branches in all but I went to the one on the fifth floor of Jinbao Place at 88 Jinbao Dajie which is only about 15 minutes straight walk from the Kapok hotel.
Getting in wasn’t easy though as I didn’t know that it’s best to reserve two days before. Also, they stop taking reservations at 6.30pm but you should call around 1pm to make sure you get a table. I showed up on a Friday night without a reservation to be told I’d have to wait an hour. I took a ticket and decamped to Molly Mallone’s on the ground floor of the Legendale hotel next door for a couple of beers while I was waiting (warning: a pint of Hoegaarden costs £10 here! Other beers less). When I returned I had to wait an additional 20 minutes which gave me time to peruse the gargantuan 164 page menu with its beautiful food photography.
Like the menu, the restaurant is also very impressive. In the first main room there is a central island, separated from the diners by a moat, with four duck ovens, one in each corner. Chefs bring braces of ducks over the drawbridge to each oven where they are hung above the burning coals by means of a long pole. When the skin reaches a suitable shade of brown they are hung on a hook in the central plating area where the fat is poured out from their mouths and they are put on a tray to go to the table (video here). Not all of them make it and a few charred ducks were sat on the lip of the oven. (Customers are allowed over the drawbridge to take close ups of the action). The birds are carved into small chop-stick sized pieces at the table and beautifully served in layered stacks on the plate (video here).
After carving, the chef serving me prepared the first roll (video here). So much for the theatre, what’s the food like? The duck I’m sure is very good as ducks go (A) but it didn’t taste any better or worse than any other I’ve ever had, whether in Beijing or in the UK. Chef Dong’s ducks are apparently “super-lean” i.e. less greasy than elsewhere, but I’m not sure if that comes from the breeding or the preparation. It tasted pretty bland to me and personally I would have rubbed some salt into the skin to bring out the flavour, but then what do I know. The Hoisin sauce was more brackish than the sweeter flavours I’m used to and the Bing (pancakes) were cold and stuck together (C). From the choice of accompaniments, the best flavour combination was duck dipped in sugar, quite a revelation (A).
You also get a bowl of duck soup which tasted very ducky but also quite greasy (C-), so I left it to concentrate on the meat. On the side, a portion of Yeung Chow fried rice which was also a bit greasy and spoiled for me by the addition of celery (C).
Another side dish, chosen purely for aesthetic reasons, was the fish maw in egg white, which did nothing for me taste wise (D) but looked great with its carved Pak Choi garnish. To finish, some complimentary popsicles, bean or lotus paste I think (C), and a plate of more or less ripe plums, on ice for some reason (B-).
In conclusion then I’d say definitely come for the experience and the spectacle, but don’t expect a culinary epiphany. The wall full of awards and certificates in the waiting area says I’m wrong but all reviews are subjective and this is just how I personally feel, you might love the food. I left feeling content, though not quite enough to justify the £40 I paid out, but also feeling a little sad for the plight of the duck as a species. You wonder just how many a city of 22 million people gets through every year.
There are of course tons of other duck establishments but, as described above, everywhere gets criticised so ultimately it’s a matter of personal taste.
Please see my other Beijing posts for other kinds of restaurants.