OK so from what I've gleaned from reading here and elsewhere is that this is the definitive battle for kind of Beijing Duck here in Beijing or even perhaps the world. Ever since I read on the Los Angeles board of Quanjude's Los Angeles demise shortly before I arrived in LA, I became obsessed with tasting the quintessential duck.
Having recently completed whole duck feasts at both establishments and watching personally as my duck came out of each of their smoking, fruit wood fired brick ovens (glistening with a crispy golden sheen I'd never quite experienced before), my Lovely Tasting Assistant (LTA) and I were ready to do some serious experimenting.
Part I: Quanjude
Went to the original 150-ish year old establishment in the Quanmen area, south of Tiannamen square (as opposed to the newer one off the glitzy and gaudy Wanfujing Street).
First thing to note for those who have been to this area before is that nearly every restaurant, shop and street vendor in this area EXCEPT for Quanjude has been packed up, shut down and made to roll away (that's right, delicious street food vendors are now chased away by police in the tourist areas.) In an effort to modernize for the 2008 Olympics, the Government (capitalisation intentional) is causing serious cultural devastation here, demolishing acres of historic and atmospheric (and chowhoundly) cozy hutong neighborhood alleys, dough slice noodle shops and outdoor charcoal lamb kebab stands and building in their place giant towers, department stores, etc. I've never seen building of this scale anywhere in America-- it's astonishing, and revolting (but we'll leave the politics for another time.) The point is, for whatever reason (probably because of someone paid off... oops politics again) the oridinal Quanjude still exists, thank chowhounddom and world culture as a whole.
In front of Quanjude facing the street, there is a small takeaway front where they sell the least expensive duck on paper plates. (about 60 yuen, if I recall or about $8 per portion... didn't eat it so don't know if it's whole duck.) My fluent Chinese speaking girlfriend asked if it was the same duck, cooked in the same ovens and they said yes (however we have learned to take a huge grain of salt with any info offered by any native Chinese as precision information is not one of their finest attributes.) We didn't fly all the way to Beijing for paper plate duck however, so we went inside the restaurant proper, down a little driveway, past all the guys who want to take you for bicycle rickshaw rides through the hutongs.
First thing-- the place is beautiful, with the original tiny restaurant appearing almost as a little shrine in the back as compared to the 2 level behemoth that has sprouted off of it. But as with all of the most beautiful sites in China, with growing popularite the gift shop factor has been ramped up. Though the restaurant is designed in a quasi-traditional Chinese style with lots of subdued wood tones, you do have to dodge past kitschy teapots and cigarette lighters decorated with tits and a picture of George Bush eating there. Welcome to China.
On to the duck. Apparantly they have two levels of duck. The 160 yuen ($20) duck comes with the basic shmear, pancakes, slivered onions, plum sauce. There's also a 198 yuen model (about $25) and we were told that it's a better duck. Why? "It's just better." Don't ask the Chinese for specific information-- you'll just be disappointed. In reality the "better duck" came with a second type of pancake (made probably from cornmeal) but we preferred the original flour pancake. It also came with the white duck bone soup, which tasted much like cloudy water. For sides we ordered chinese broccoli and 4-flavor duck dumpling, which were these colorful little squares divided up into 4 quarters, each filled with a different brightly colored, minced duck part. They were fantastic. But I digress... it's all about the duck here.
I should first say that I have only ever eaten the quasi Beijing duck at Lu Din Gee in Los Angeles, which does not have the required brick/fruit wood oven to make it true Beijing duck. The difference was phenomenal. First, the chef comes out with the duck, tableside and begins the carving process, right in front of you. Fantastic! First he separated the crispy bits of skin, layers them in a plate. Then it's slices of breast meat with thin rings of skin still clinging. Then it's on to the succulent, dark leg and thigh meat. Ohhhh my. He laid the plates in front of us and the first thing I did was inhale heaven. The intense, wonderful, rich smokiness filled my head. I tasted a bit of the skin.... sliced so thin and incredibly crunchy. The duck was gone in about 20 minutes, and we left about 98% of the duck bone soup. (By the way, does this stuff ever have flavor?)
Part II: Made In China
I should have been wary of this place when I saw that it was recommended in "many travel guides." But I read great praise for it on Chowhound at one time and the name stuck in my mind. I figured that Quanjude was probably listed in every travel guide too, so what the hell. Made in China is located in the glitzy Oriental Plaza, inside the lobby of the doubly glitzy Hilton Hotel. We secured seats right in front of the brick duck oven so that we could actually see our ducks hanging in the back, behind the fire, swaying gently as the heat and smoke rocked that baby to deliciousness.
The duck here was 208 yuen, so about $1.20 more expensive than the Quanjude duck. Everything else on the menu was generally obscenely expensive. We came for the duck, so that's all we ordered. The waitress assurred us that "many of our customers enjoy our duck more than Quanjude." What I can say to that is that most of their customers are businessmen on expense accounts, impressed more with the stunningly tasteful decor (no gift shops) than developing their own culinary palates. Now the bird here wasn't bad, per se, it was just a disappointment in comparison to Quanjude. The duck arrived tableside (I actually got a video of this straight from oven to our table which I will post on our blog eventually...) this time with the head, which was a nice touch. We were told by the chef that often the head is served for 2 reasons-- 1) to prove that the whole duck is just for you and 2) some people like to eat the brain. The condiments arrived, much the same although the onions were not julienned as fine, making for a fibrous chew sometimes. Not good! In addition, they also brought a weird garlic mayonnaise sauce. We asked what this was for and he said "some foreigners prefer the garlic sauce to the plum sauce." Huh?? My panic buttons had been pushed. The chef began to disassemble the bird in much the same way as in Quanjude. I smelled the plate of duck and was shocked...... there was barely a trace of the fruit wood smoke. How can that be? I saw it come out of that smoky brick inferno. Somehow the meat was also much less flavorful. It was juicy, but just not... you know, Quanjude. The one outstanding characteristic of the bird was the skin. It was a much deeper golden color than Quanjude's, and the texture was totally unusual. The texure was crispy on the outside but somehow spongey/crunchy on the inside. When my molars bit into it, the skin squeegied juice of some kind (tasted like oil) into my mouth. I'm not entirely sure I enjoyed it (however my LTA did) but it was uniquely characteristic of the Made in China duck.
That's all for now-- check out our blog if you like. Lots of food pics... not entirely up to date but we're working on it!
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