Hello. I'm a visiting NYC chowhound, and my hosts and I just did a quick tour of ducks in Beijing. Now, pizzas and briskets are more my area of expertise - ducks are kind of out of my field - but my hosts suggested that I post my review of the experience on the China board, and weigh in on what I understand is some sort of eternally raging debate here. So, here goes; I may not know much about ducks, but I know what I like.
We were in Beijing for 3 days, and sampled 3 fairly similar ducks in 3 wildly different settings. The first duck, which we ate just after checking into our hotel, came from Quanjude, a huge, bustling duck palace filled with Chinese families. The place we ate was actually an expansion of the old Quanjude restaurant, which has been serving duck since 1864, but which is closed right now for pre-Olympic renovation (this may have been a good thing, because my hosts both agree that the duck we ate was better than the ones they've gotten from the old place). The duck we were served was the 400,118th duck they've ever served. I know, because they gave us a certificate of authenticity. It was pretty much perfect: crispy, golden skin; thin, fresh, un-sticky, flavorful pancakes; good scallions and hoisin sauce (you wouldn't think this would be an issue, but it was); a thin but noticeable layer of rich duck fat; and, most importantly, tender, moist, extremely flavorful meat. We were also served boiling-hot cups of opaque, watery duck broth, of which I took a single sip and which my hosts, more experienced than I in such things, avoided altogether.
The second duck we had was at Made In China, a very modern, upscale Imperial restaurant with a distributed open-kitchen design, so that we walked by the duck-kiln on our way to the table, which was wedged between the woks on my left (spectacular flame-ups punctuated the evening), the noodle-chef in front of me, and a full-wall window with a beautiful view of an underlit willow and an old tile roof to my immediate right. The place was incredibly pleasant, and all the food was quite good, cooked with a modern sensibility. But the duck, though good, was probably the worst of the three ducks I had. The main problem was that the meat was neither as flavorful nor as tender and succulent as at the other places, but it didn't help that the pancakes were doughy and that the duck had been cooked until there was very little fat left between the (very) crispy skin and the meat. They served the duck in what I believe is the more traditional Imperial style, which allows a single dish to be eaten in many different ways (presumably, this way the Emperor could eat more than one bite of a given duck). There was one plate of duck slices with skin, one plate of duck slices without skin, and one plate of slices of just skin. Our waitress recommended dipping the skin in a bowl of sugar provided for that purpose; it tasted kind of like eating a slice of butter dusted with sugar, only with an unnerving ducky taste, which is to say way worse. Really, while the skin might be "the best part", eating it without meat just didn't do it for me. And, of course, the skinless duck wasn't as good, so I ended up combining the skin and the skinless duck in a number of my pancakes. The Imperial tradition did have a huge upside, though. Apparently, there were traditionally 2 sauces served with Peking duck: hoisin sauce for the women, and a pureed garlic sauce for the men. Hoisin sauce with duck is very good, but the garlic sauce (which I think really was just pureed garlic) fits perfectly together with the fattiness of the duck, combining to form a flavor very reminiscent of the beloved garlic sauce at Zankou Chicken in LA (which I think is pureed garlic with a little butter). In fact, the garlic sauce was so good that it made up for the inferiority of the duck, and the final wrapped pancakes that I had at Made In China may have been the best I had in Beijing.
The third place we went, LiQun, was located in a maze of grey, dusty, run-down shacks, on a street inaccessible to cars. It was 2PM, and we were the only ones eating there, in an un-airconditioned room next to an open refrigerator full of ducks, while a sullen Chinese girl alternately mopped the floor and swatted at flies. The duck meat itself was very good - moist, tender, and flavorful, not at all chewy. The pancakes reminded me of the thin, flexible rice paper that you sometimes see surrounding Vietnamese spring rolls - they weren't quite as good as the ones at Quanjude, but I liked the little bit of stretch and chew that they had, and they certainly weren't doughy like the ones at Made In China. Unfortunately, the duck skin wasn't as crispy as I would have liked, and the thick layer of fat between the skin and the meat overwhelmed the meat and skin. And, shockingly, the hoisin sauce (which I would have assumed would be constant across the board) was kind of grainy and acrid, noticeably inferior to the hoisin sauces at the other two places. We tried to order garlic sauce and ended up with a paste of garlic and sugar, but it was only about 25 cents down the drain.
Now, I'm not one to be put off by a little fat, so for me the duck at LiQun was #2 because the meat was so much better than at Made In China; one of my hosts agreed. The other, who is one to be put off by a little fat, found the duck at LiQun downright difficult to eat, and far preferred Made in China. But we all agreed that the duck at Quanjude was #1. The thing to do, I think, would be to take a little container of pureed garlic with you to Quanjude, although for all I know you might be able to order it there.
Now, as a caveat, I only ate one data point at each restaurant, so it's possible that some of my experiences may have been statistically aberrant. As I say, I'm no expert on the Beijing food scene. But, for what it's worth, there's an outsider's perspective on the Beijing duck brawl.
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