Everything I know about Chinese restaurants tells me that if I go into an overpriced, white-tablecloth Chinese restaurant on the Upper East Side, and my party has the only patrons of Chinese heritage in the restaurant, the best I can hope for is a mediocre, expensive meal. Turns out I was wrong.
A little background – we were looking for a nice-ish Chinese restaurant where our family and my brother’s gf’s family could meet for the first time. The original reservation was at Philippe, where none of us had been before. As we stood outside Philippe, listening to the progressively increasing din, staring at the menu and trying to figure out how one can justify paying $59 for beef with oyster sauce (even if it is for two), I started to panic.
One emergency caucus later, we headed over to Peking Duck House. Maybe my sense of value had been recalibrated by the menu at Philippe, but the entrée prices seemed reasonable for the neighborhood (mostly low $20s). More important, there were actually dishes that sounded interesting on the menu.
Seafood and tofu soup – lightly thickened broth, good seafood
Peking Duck – the duck itself was good, but was overwhelmed by the rather large flour wrappers, the cucumber, the scallion, and the hoisin
XO Prawns – very slightly overcooked, but flavorful. I like my XO with a touch more dried scallop and shallot, but this was otherwise a very good dish. The prawns were served with a perfectly cooked Chinese vegetable I couldn’t identify.
Beijing-Style Lobster – my favorite of the night – pan-fried lobster tends to cling to the shell and is virtually impossible to eat with chopsticks. I threw table manners to the wind and went after the sweet flesh with two forks, scraping it out inelegantly with one fork in each hand. The sauce was subtle but flavorful (mostly ginger, scallion, and chili, I think).
Ma-la Scallops – these had good ma-la – they were also slightly overcooked to my taste, but the scallops were large and sweet, and served with a generous helping of sautéed watercress
Gai-lan with oyster sauce
Lamb with peppers (I forget the actual name on the menu) – this was probably my least favorite dish – it wasn’t bad, but the texture was supersoft from a cornstarch marinade, and the flavor a little flat, compared to that of the seafood dishes.
Overall, I was impressed with the sweetness of the seafood, the glossy, subtle but complex sauces (no monosaucing here), and the perfectly cooked vegetables (I especially appreciated that the veggies accompanying the scallops and the prawns were seasoned differently from each other and complementary to the seafood with which they were paired).
Peking Duck House
236 E 53rd St, New York, NY 10022